Friday, July 22, 2016
A group of parents is questioning the motives of a Ramapo Central School District plan to trim transportation offerings next fall to private school students, with some saying it is an attempt to oust the Jewish community from an area that's seen a growth in the Orthodox and Hasidic population in recent years.
For many years, the district has provided students who attend non-public schools, such as yeshivas, with multiple busing routes in the morning and afternoon. But school officials say rising costs caused by an increase in the number of students who seek busing has prompted them to search for a more cost-effective way to manage the multi-million dollar transportation budget.
"It reeks of something else," said Andrea Jaffe, whose child attends Bais Yaakov of Ramapo. She added that she suspects there is "a discomfort with changing demographics in neighborhoods" within the Ramapo Central District, which serves Airmont, Hillburn, Sloatsburg, Montebello, Suffern and part of Monsey.
The Town of Ramapo, which is partially covered by the Ramapo Central School District, has experienced one of the most notable population increases in the lower Hudson Valley, from 108,905 people in 2000 to 128,335 in 2013, according to a study compiled by Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. Much of the growth in Rockland County during that 13-year period was fueled by ethnic or religious groups, particularly the Hasidic or Jewish Orthodox communities and the Hispanic or Latino communities, the study said.
In early May, the district sent families a letter saying it can only accommodate one arrival time and one dismissal time for non-public schools. In addition, the district said each school would be restricted to one point for drop-offs and pick-ups — regardless of the number of buildings on a campus — and that the district would cease to provide busing to non-public or private schools on days when public schools are closed.
Deputy Superintendent Stephen Walker could not provide an estimate as to how much the district could save by paring down transportation. "There is no way to answer that particular question at this point because we do not know the number of non-public schools, the number of students or the number of buses and routes that will be required," he said.
As of now, he said officials continue to project an 8 percent increase — from $7.6 million to $8.2 million, which is six percent of the district's $134.5 million budget for the 2016-17 school year.
Based upon numbers provided by the district during a budget workshop earlier this year, 490 non-public school students were bused to 83 schools during the 2012-13 school year. For the coming school year, officials projected 772 students would require bus transportation to 105 schools.
Over the last few years, Walker said the administration has sought to reduce spending in several areas to become more cost-effective. Reductions have included library/media specialists, social workers, teaching assistants and technology facilitators, he said.
"Beyond that, we have been looking at our special-education services and providing more in-house programs in order to maintain quality while reducing costs. In a like manner, we have been looking at our transportation costs, which have gone up significantly over the past few years," Walker said.
Officials want to "align transportation services" with how such services are provided to district public school students, Walker said. For the district's seven public schools, the routes of buses, which are operated by Chestnut Ridge Transportation, Inc., are built around one arrival time and one dismissal time, however, at the middle school and high school, there are two late buses offered in the afternoon for students.
Walker also said the adjustments officials have made "are fully consistent" with what is required under state law — transportation for all students within the 15-mile radius.
"Our goal is to ensure that all students, regardless of whether they attend a public, private, parochial or non-public school, are transported on an equal basis," Walker said.
Jaffe, the mother of the Bais Yaakov student, said the district's plan would be "a drastic change," one that would impact hundreds of families. She said it could also put more cars on the road, as some parents would be forced to drive their kids to school. The district may also be required, she noted, to hire more bus drivers to accommodate transporting students at common arrival and departure times.
Alan Messner, whose son is going into eighth grade at Yeshiva of Spring Valley, said he believes the district has shown "no appreciation for the fact" that non-public schools operate in a different manner than public ones, in terms of curriculum or how the days are structured.
"They've made no assessment, just that they believe they can save money. There's been no indication of how many students it will affect, no safety considerations taken into consideration or the ramifications of traffic," Messner said. "It seems like a way to keep us out under the thinly veiled justification of business as usual."
Without a cost-saving estimate, Jaffe said, "It's a targeted cut with no math behind it."
"Private school parents believe that public school funding should remain strong. We get a limited amount of services, but we want to make sure we get the ones required by law ... It seems there is an underlying current of people who feel we don't deserve our legal mandated services due to race, ethnicity or religion," Jaffe said.
"We're exploring our legal options and we'll pursue whatever remedies we can," said Jaffe who is involved with a group of about 100 Jewish private-school parents opposed to the change.
While people can pursue appeals with the State Education Department over the transportation policy, a department spokesman said as of Thursday the state has not received any challenges.
Messner, who attended a recent school board meeting with his wife after learning of the changes, described the climate as "very hostile, vicious and anti-Semitic." He said , "People were cheering wildly and loudly 'Keep those people out.'
"It's quite ironic to go to the district administration building in Hillburn for the meetings," said Messner. The building was formerly Hillburn School, one of the first locations in the country that attorney and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall fought in the early 1940s to desegregate, a battle that set the stage for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling more than a decade later that ordered the ended of school segregation.
Walker said he would not "dignify" any suggestion that the district was discriminating against students who are Jewish.
"Our school district treats all students in our community in like fashion, whether they attend public schools, religious schools or private schools," he wrote in a email.
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