Thursday, September 15, 2016
Private school parents say they are continuing to grapple with the fallout from transportation cuts that went into effect last week in the Ramapo Central school district, but are hoping for some temporary relief until the state education commissioner rules on an appeal they filed to challenge the new busing plan.
Faced with an increase over the last several years in the number of students seeking buses to non-public schools, the district decided in the spring to pare down the mandated service to save money.
While there are a handful of Christian and other private schools in New Jersey and Rockland County to which students are bused, the majority of non-public schools attended by local children are yeshivas in Spring Valley, Monsey and Suffern, according to information provided by the district.
Instead of continuing to offer staggered morning and afternoon bus routes, the district now accommodates one arrival and one dismissal for each non-public school, which is how transportation is scheduled for the 4,800 children who attend one of the district's seven public schools. The district also stopped providing busing on days when public schools are closed.
"We do not feel it's been a very smooth transition," said Andrea Jaffe, one of the nearly 100 parents involved in the appeal. "We want to come up with other creative ways to approach the problem, but we've been given no opportunities to compromise or come up with alternate measures."
Believing that the district didn't fully vet all options before making a move that affects hundreds of children, the parents of the non-public school children appealed to the state Education Department, as well as requested a stay on the change.
On Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the state Education Department said both matters were under review. Ramapo Central Deputy Superintendent Stephen Walker acknowledged the appeal but declined to comment further on it.
Over the last week, the reduction in services has prompted parents to drive their children or organize carpools, which has put more cars on already congested roads, said Jaffe, the mother of a Bais Yaakov student.
Lindsay Jordan, another parent challenging Ramapo Central, said the district needs to come up with a more efficient plan, one that takes into account how the non-public schools operate instead of a "one size fits all" approach.
At yeshivas, the length of the school day varies upon grade level, which means some children are being bused much earlier than they need to be or must wait around in the afternoon for the bus home, Jordan said. And, although some of the yeshivas have separate locations for boys and girls, the district restricted drop-off and pick-up for each private school to one spot regardless of whether it has multiple sites, she said.
Walker has said the adjustments "are fully consistent" with what is required under state law — transportation for all students within a 15-mile radius. The deputy superintendent added that the procedures align with the education commissioner's regulations, as well as guidance the district received during discussions with the state Education Department.
Trimming busing was touted by the district as a cost-effective way to manage the multimillion-dollar transportation budget, but Walker did not provide an estimate of how much it stood to save because officials are still getting a handle on the number of students and routes.
Without being provided data that can illustrate potential savings, parents are questioning the district's motives, with some saying they believe it is an attempt to force the Jewish community out of an area that's seen marked growth in the Orthodox and Hasidic population over the last several years.
"I don't think it's to save money. ... I think they don't want more non-public school students moving into the district and I think this is a way to make it harder for us to live here," said Jordan, whose family moved to a mostly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood nine years ago. "There are concerns about overdevelopment in East Ramapo, and I think people are trying to prevent that from occurring here."
The town of Ramapo, which is partially covered by the Ramapo Central school district, has experienced one of the most dramatic population increases in the lower Hudson Valley, from 108,905 in 2000 to 128,335 in 2013, according to a study by Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. Much of the growth in Rockland County was fueled by ethnic or religious groups, particularly the Hasidic or Orthodox Jewish communities, the study said.
Walker said the procedures "are applied equally to public, non-public and private/non-sectarian schools."
"The services that we provide to the schools that are ostensibly represented by the petitioners are no different than the services we provide to Catholic schools, other Christian schools and the one Muslim school that we have in the school district," Walker said.
For the 2016-17 school year, the district forecast 772 students requiring transportation to 105 non-public schools. Just three years ago, the district bused 490 non-public school students to 83 schools, based upon information provided in a budget session earlier this year.
As of now, the district continues to project an 8 percent increase in annual transportation costs — from $7.6 million to $8.2 million, which is about six percent of the $134.5 million budget for the current school year.
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