The new Board of Education voted Monday to have its property committee revisit the hardship waiver for families who were redistricted last year. At the center of the issue are two small pockets of families who are just under the state’s two-mile rule that mandates that students get to ride the bus free of charge.
Those families were redistricted away from closer schools and say they were promised busing. Now, they say, not only have their children been moved too far to walk, they will have to pay for busing when students just a couple blocks over are far enough away to ride for free.
“There are 12 students -- six families -- who are left without busing,” said Stephanie Kresch, who lives in Short Hills and whose children are bused to Hartshorn. “It’s really just a few families that have fallen through the cracks.”
Some families complained that their children ride the bus because the walk to school is hazardous, but now the walk will be longer and more hazardous.
Board President Michael Birnberg said that when the School District offered courtesy busing for students, part of the consideration was whether the walk to school was hazardous. Now that they have eliminated courtesy busing, it is no longer a consideration because the state does make that requirement.
Some residents who live far enough away to qualify for state mandated busing, came to support the families in their neighborhood who live just shy of the two-mile mark.
“It’s not fair that a small handful of families in the neighborhood would not receive busing,” said Steve Cohen. "They're disenfranchised."
The board voted 7-2 to send the issue back for review by the newly configured property committee to determine whether there is some sort of compromise for the small number of families affected this way because they were redistricted last year and bused to schools farther away from home.
“On a practical level, we’ve ended up with two small groups redistricted who fall within these borders,” said Jeff Waters. “We are simply asking the new committee to revisit the issue to see if these families qualify for any hardships.”
Rona Wenik and Eric Siegel, who were on the property committee and voted against reviewing the issue, said they decided to stay within the state mandates because otherwise it becomes “a slippery slope.”
“I’ve received many emails of cases where someone sees taking busing away as a hardship,” Siegel said. “…For all these reasons the property committee voted to stick with the state mandate as a guideline.”
Carolyn Most, who has spoken out against subscription busing several times, returned to the podium after the vote was taken.
“You have opened a can of worms here,” she said. “If you guy are going to reconsider people who were redistricted last year, how about those of us who were redistricted years ago? These families have a really strong case, but we have an historic issue. If you reconsider them, you have to reconsider everyone.”
Most predicted the issue will not go away and that the board would be dealing with it at every meeting for the next several months. “It’s not going to be worth the money you’re saving,” she said. “You’re going be pulling your hair out by the end of this.”
Other highlights of the meeting included the swearing-in of newly elected board members Regina Truitt and Jean Pasternak and re-elected member Jeff Waters and the board's election of Michael Birnberg as board president and Eric Siegel as vice president. The board voted unanimously for Siegel and 7-2 for Birnberg with Truitt and Waters not voting for him.
The two will be meet in the next week to decide committee appointments, and several parents of special needs children beseeched the board to appoint Pasternak to the special education committee because of all her work with the Millburn Special Education Committee (MSPEC).
Birnberg made a point to tell the audience that all the board members are “super able, super talented, and super intelligent” will do well on any committee, and that he and Siegel would choose the right people for the right commitees.
He also told parents that before they turn the meeting into a "Jean Love Fest" they should realize that she is not the only board member with a child with special needs, but they just don’t talk about their children because they don’t want them singled out.
The parents of students with special needs said they want their voices heard and someone appointed to the committtee that will listen to them with compassion and understanding.