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School Board Welcomes New Members, Discusses Courtesy Busing Again

BOE votes to have committee revisit the subscription busing hardship waiver for last year's redistricted families.

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.

MarkDS May 03, 2011 at 12:41 PM
It is exactly because Pasternak has a special needs child and has been active in an advocacy group that she SHOULD NOT be on the special education committee. She is just too close to the issue. I voted for her but I wrote here right after she announced her candidacy that I was concerned that she was doing so as a special pleader for one issue. She wrote back to assure me that she was not and I accepted that response. After the orchestrated events of last night I am beginning to have my doubts again. Certainly as a Board member she has a voice on all issues but if she really wants to transition from a role as an advocate to a role as a BOE member she should decline to serve on the special education committee. Oh and Ms. Most, stop making threats. You are starting to sound like We Love Millburn.
Carolyn Most May 03, 2011 at 12:43 PM
As I mentioned at last night's meeting, in 1998 when South Mountain school reopened, kids form the old Washington school district were not sent to South Mountain, their closest school - but remained in the Wyoming district. As a result, they were promised busing . This is a historical commitment that the community has kept for nearly 15 years. While I totally support providing busing for those re-deistricted last year away form their closest elementary school, how can the Board possibly consider their "special circumstance" without applying the same standard across the township. is it fair to to consider just a few families in one neighborhood of Short Hills? The BOE must remain impartial and as such are obligated to define a single standard. This issue is gong to remain front and center in the community. Less than 15% of the voters came to the polls last week which leads me to believe that the vast majority of residents affected by Courtesy Busing cuts, do not yet realize they are gong to be asked to pay next year. I suspect that when the BOE sends the letters out informing the parents of the approximately 2500 students impacted by this plan, there will be many more outraged residents.
Carolyn Most May 03, 2011 at 12:51 PM
I also wonder how much it will cost the Town Council to provide police, crossing guards, new crosswalks, street signs, ret-ime existing traffic lights and possibly install new ones, and even put sidewalks on certain streets so the town provides safe walking routes for our kids. This would include defining walking routes for all children to all schools, a detailed traffic analysis, the cost of required infrastructure upgrades, as well as ongoing personnel and maintenance costs. In the end, it may well make sense for the Town Council to provide the $375,000 needed to continue providing Courtesy Busing for these 2,500 students - or at the very least the portion allocated for Elementary School Students - rather than hastily define walking routes, perform traffic analysis and try to install all the required upgrades over the summer. This one path other towns have taken when residents demanded safe walking routes to school.
Carolyn Most May 03, 2011 at 02:12 PM
The "orchestrated events" of last night were a small group of families who feel strongly that they are not being well served by the district asking for representation by someone who actually listens to them. It seems a novel concept until you consider that the BOE and the rest of the administration of the district, including, the Superintendent, work for us. I imagine if the current BOE and the district was actually responsive to these folks, or to the rest of the community on critical issues, they would not have been so compelled to speak out last night. IN fact,, ass I mentioned last evening, not only is this a good idea but according to state law, the BOE is REQUIRED to "frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted with those who will be affected by them". (NJSA 18A:12-24.1 COde of Ethics for School Board Members). If they were consistently doing so as part of the BOE governing process, residents might actually "trust the board" as Dr. Zucker suggested last evening. And BTW: I am not threatening anyone. I was stating the my perspective that-when 2000+ letters go out to the families that have not yet realized they are gong to have to pay for busing next year, the BOE and the District are gong to have their hands full of extremely unhappy residents.
M OKeef May 03, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Carolyn -- What makes you think the Township is planning to implement your laundry list of items above? Install new traffic lights and new sidewalks? Conduct a detailed traffic analysis? There have always been disagreements as to whether the Township hires enough crossing guards and where they should go and whether any of the roads without sidewalks (the majority of roads by the way) are safe enough EVEN NOW with courtesy busing in place. Very unlikely the Township intends to do much more than hire a few more crossing guards, add some pedestrian crossing signs and maybe add police to direct traffic at each school.
Carolyn Most May 03, 2011 at 05:01 PM
With Courtesy busing in place, the BOE was required to provide dangerous route busing. With no Courtesy busing and hence no dangerous route busing, the municipality is responsible for providing safe walking routes for kids to get to school
JFC May 03, 2011 at 06:38 PM
MarkDS, could you explain the conflict you are concerned about?
MarkDS May 03, 2011 at 06:45 PM
Conflict is the wrong word. Is is that Ms. Pasternak was head of an advocacy group. But the role of a Board member is not advocacy, it is deliberation and the formulation of overall balance. My concern is that if Ms. Pasternak is on the special education committee she will use it as an avenue to continue her advocacy role and not transition into the requirements of a Board member. So given her past roles it is better imo that she not be on the special education committee, at least initially.
JFC May 03, 2011 at 07:21 PM
M-Spec is an advocacy group? I thought it provided parent education and support groups. Who do they advocate against?
MarkDS May 03, 2011 at 07:25 PM
Its for not against.
JFC May 03, 2011 at 08:04 PM
I assume your saying the group advocates for students with special need. But who do they go up against? I just assumed you were saying that this group's advocacy for students is different from all the other parent groups. Is that the case?
MarkDS May 03, 2011 at 08:37 PM
Why are you assuming that a group that advocates something is "up against" someone else?
M OKeef May 03, 2011 at 11:36 PM
Carolyn Only time will tell but the Township has never built sidewalks in the areas of town that are not eligible for busing but which lack sidewalks.....so precedent goes against your argument.
KLF May 03, 2011 at 11:38 PM
I don't believe that is correct, Carolyn. Everything about courtesy busing was just that -- a courtesy, optional. Having courtesy busing created the opportunity to offer busing for those who lived on "hazardous routes." The district could create its own parameters for the courtesy they wanted to provide. If I am mistaken, please let me know.
SHMill May 03, 2011 at 11:59 PM
We must be careful what we wish for regarding sidewalks. Although I would appreciate more sidewalks in our community, those communities that do have sidewalks require residents with sidewalks in front of their property to contribute to the cost of installation as well as the cost of the sidealk's maintenace and repairs.
Carolyn Most May 04, 2011 at 12:12 AM
KLF: It is actually NJ State law that if the district provides Courtesy busing, they must provide hazardous route busing as well. If the district does not provide Courtesy busing, they are not obligated to provide hazardous route busing. "State law requires a school district providing any courtesy busing to adopt a policy addressing the busing of students who walk along hazardous routes between their homes and schools." However, "Another state law provides for a municipality to pay for safety busing. instead of a school district. When a governing body of a municipality finds that for safety reasons it is desirable to provide busing, the governing body and the school district can enter into a contract whereby the school district would provide the safety busing but the municipality would pay for it. http://gianfrancopietrafesa.com/Documents/Fundamentals%20of%20School%20Busing.pdf.
JFC May 04, 2011 at 01:09 AM
I don't know- that's why I'm asking you if M-Spec's advocacy for students is somehow different from all the other parent groups. I just don't understand the logic of your position. Isn't everyone on the Board advocating for the best education possible given the resources available? Are you saying the committee charged with addressing issues affecting students with disabilities should NOT be assigned persons advocating for those students? Is this only pertinent to students with disabilities, or are you saying if anyone on the Board has publicly advocated for any students, they should not be on any committee that could address issues affecting those students? What about advocacy for something other than students? Waters publicly advocated for the budget he prepared. Do you think he should now decline to serve on the finance committee?
MarkDS May 04, 2011 at 10:10 AM
Thats the issue a Board member should not "advocate" for anything. They need to allocate. They need to be neutral. So there is a difference between someone with financial expertise being on the finance committee and someone who has spent years advocating for a specific cause sitting on a committee that makes policy in that area. And supporting Board decisions as a member is different from being an outside advocate pushing in a particular area. The basic question Ms. Pasternak needs to answer for herself is does she want to be a Board member or does she want to be the "special ed representative on the Board". The events Monday make it seem as if she is tending to the latter. And I think that would be unfortunate. But if that is how she wants to be seen then fine it will be apparent that she is not there to represent all Millburn residents, just one subset. She still has a chance to show that she wants to be a Board member for all by not serving on the special education committee. So it is her choice and the perception will form based on the choice she makes.
LMZ May 04, 2011 at 10:28 AM
#MarkDS It seems you are missing the point of BOE committees. They are not to make decisions, they are to communicate to the Board of Ed to enable each BOE member to votes on the issue. Your suggestion that she would have a conflict is the opposite of how committees purportedly work. The committees are comprised of people who have strong stated interests, talents and connections to the purpose whenever possible (which is why Pasternak would also be great for the Finance Committee). Your argument that Pasternak has the most experience with Special Ed is exactly why she should be on the Committee at least and the Chair of it. She is in the best position to communicate to the entire Board the issues and concerns and other important information for that stated role!
JFC May 04, 2011 at 04:12 PM
Yikes MarkDS, it sounds like you are biased against kids with disabilities. In this town, Board members are elected officials. They are elected by the community based on their skills, knowledge and individual judgement. Once elected, they are expected to continue to utilize those skills, impart their knowledge and formulate policy on behalf of the public based on their individual judgement. They must REFUSE to surrender their independent judgement - that which has been made clear to the public during their candidacy- to special interest or partisan political groups, including groups biased against students with disabilities. The public made their preferences known; they elected Jean to the Board to represent all Millburn residents based on the skills, knowledge and individual judgement she brings with her. For the same reasons, they want Jean to chair the special ed committee. Unless there is a compelling reason that Jean should not serve on that committee, the Board should carry out the public's request. IMO, based on your reasoning, I fear a Board decision to exclude Jean from the Sp Ed Committee without a compelling reason will be perceived as DISCRIMINATION. Fear that policies or decisions effecting students with disabilities will be made by persons knowledgable about special ed is not a compelling reason. IMO, if you did not agree with her independent judgement, you should not have voted for her. But the public did - more so for her than any other candidate.
MarkDS May 04, 2011 at 04:26 PM
Rushing to call someone biases for expressing an opinion is pretty despicable btw. But there is a problem that special education is taking an outsized portion of out education budget and like everything else the costs, which have been raising rapidly, needs to be curbed. By calling anyone who will not give special education a blank check biased you indicate that you feel entitled to a blank check. And it is exactly that attitude that makes me nervous about Ms. Pasternak being on the special education committee. There was no "vote" by the people on whether Ms. Pasternak should be on the special education committee. A group of people showed up to promote that. And if that was orchestrated or promoted by Ms. Pasternak then it seems to me she was elected under false pretenses and is in fact a Trojan board member who got on the Board to primarily promote the interests of one special interest group.
M.Moore May 04, 2011 at 05:32 PM
I have to agree with you, Mark DS - I do not believe Ms. Pasternak should be on the special education committee. She is too closely associated with the subject and needs to separate herself from it, at least for this year. It is really in her best interest as well as the best interest of a well-functioning and efficient BOE. I have to say it worries me that when someone expresses a viewpoint that is not 100% positive regarding Ms. Pasternak, her supporters completely overreact and sometimes cross the line, i.e. calling Mark DS "biased against kids with disabilities". I've seen it both on this site and IRL and it concerns me. IMHO, Ms. Pasternak should make it clear that she does not support that kind of behavior.
JFC May 04, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Is that where you were going with all this? When asked, why didn't you say you were afraid her position on that committee would end up costing the district more? IMO, Jean's position with regard to school finances was clear - fiscal efficiency in the provision of the best education- regardless of which committee she is on. IMO, she is the only Board member with the knowledge necessary to cut the special ed spending. We need someone who is willing to hold the Board accountable for the effectiveness of the programs WE pay for. I have barely the slightest clue where all my money being allocated to special ed is going. But I know we were on the DOE's early warning list for the Spec. ed students' failure to meet AYP and remain precariously close to failing again. I know our legal fees far exceeded budget due to special ed litigation. I know our per student private placements costs significantly more than neighboring districts. Don't get me started on sp. ed transportation! We need someone who has sufficient knowledge to ask critical questions without fearing they too will be perceived as biased. No one is suggesting Jean be handed a check book. No one is suggesting that all other Board members abstain from decisions affecting special ed. They are asking that someone knowledgable about their children's educational take a critical role in sp. ed. decisions. I'm asking that someone knowledgable about special ed demand accountability. Why do you think this will cost us more?
Susan1 May 04, 2011 at 06:46 PM
I'm surprised to hear such concern about anyone's biases. We all view the world through the prism of our own experiences in life. I haven't heard anyone complain about potential biases on the part of other members of the BOE and I'm sure they all have life-experiences that have shaped their views on specific topics. It seems unfair to question Jean's experience with special ed as a potential liability while touting her financial experience as a plus. These are both topics to which she brings her unique perspective. I, for one, am excited to see what Jean will add to our BOE. Let's give her a chance before we judge; fair enough?
MarkDS May 04, 2011 at 10:28 PM
Thank you for your well considered remarks. I think you capture what I was trying to say for the most part. But one thing I would say is that while special ed services are Federally required a specific level of spending is not. For instance Soth Orange Maplewood saved money by outsourcing special ed aids. That may or may not be a good idea but everything needs to be on the table.
CU May 04, 2011 at 11:38 PM
I think that is fair and reasonable and I am glad we are talking about this....

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