May 18, 2024
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Englewood DOE Opts Out of Busing for Non-Public School Students

Englewood parents who send their children to non-public schools outside the city are scrambling to arrange transportation for the coming school year after being notified by the Englewood Department of Education (DOE) on August 17 that busing will not be provided. The board informed parents that a bid put out to bus children to non-public schools, including Jewish and Catholic schools, did not receive any responses. An ad hoc group of parents whose children attend Ben Porat Yosef (BPY), Yavneh Academy, Solomon Schecter and Frisch, began communicating with each other and the board to persuade them to send out a revised bid. Although there had been discussions leading the group to think the board was willing to send out a new bid, a vote was taken at an August 20 Zoom board meeting and the motion failed.

Under state law N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1, districts must provide transportation to non-public elementary school students who live more than 2 miles from their school, and to secondary school students who live more than two and a half miles from school. Twenty miles is the maximum. When there are not enough students attending a particular school for an established bus route, the district must provide “aid-in-lieu-of payment,” not to exceed $1,000 per student. Parents must either pay for private transportation at a higher cost, drive themselves, or arrange carpools. Payment to private bus companies has to be made upfront, but the DOE sends the money to parents on a trailing basis, one check in January and one in June. Parents with more than one child in private school are looking at an unanticipated outlay of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, if due to changing conditions schools have to return to a virtual format, the parents are at risk of losing the money paid to the bus company.

Alan Mitrani, an Englewood parent of children in BPY, emailed a letter to the board detailing the costs private school parents are now facing. He wrote: “…this will place an undue, additional burden/tax on already overtaxed local families. In my family’s case, this will cost at least an additional $1,200 in total (assuming that we get the full reimbursement, which in the age of COVID is extremely unlikely), although it seems we will have to pay about $5,600 upfront to contract the bus.” He pointed out that approximately half of Englewood’s real estate taxes are allocated to the Board of Education, which spends nothing on the education of private school students.

Englewood parents who have tried to resolve the issue are angry about how the process has been handled, and the late date at which they were notified that the DOE would not be providing busing. The starting point was the decision by the DOE’s private school contractor, the South Bergen Jointure Commission (SBJC), to send out the bid at 20% of bus capacity, or 11 children maximum on a bus with 54 seats. A limit of 20% capacity would in effect be an 80% cut in revenue for the bus company or require five times as many buses. “The only surprise is why they thought there would be any bids at that rate,” said Mitrani.

Superintendent Robert Kravitz wrote in an email to The Jewish Link that the SBJC was following an example the CDC used in its guidelines, printed by The New Jersey Department of Education in its booklet “The Road Back.” But that example was immediately followed by a statement that siblings sitting together can increase capacity. The CDC guidelines suggest either a reduced percentage of capacity or the introduction of strict bus procedures. The CDC’s website says “Implementation should be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community” without exact requirements.

The schools formulated a comprehensive guide to reopening, including strict bus procedures, that Englewood parents shared with the DOE. Mitrani said Teaneck’s DOE used the plan to send out bids with 100% bus capacity and is providing busing for township students in non-public schools.

At the board meeting, Dr. Maureen Nemetski, a physician in pediatric emergency medicine at Hackensack Hospital, and a parent of students at BPY and Frisch, explained the protocols in the plan that make increased capacity possible including universal masking, assigned seating with only siblings sitting next to each other, open windows at all times, no eating or drinking, frequent sanitizing and the requirement that not only sick children stay home but children with sick siblings. She also said that the buses almost never have maximum occupancy. A fine point is that there is a difference between capacity and occupancy. If siblings are sitting together, the capacity can be higher, as pointed out in “The Road Back,” because there are fewer empty seats. At most, maximum capacity is only between the last stop and school in the morning, and school and the first stop returning kids home. She said these protocols are more enforceable and safer than carpools. Another parent, David Goldman, pointed out that there were three buses from Englewood to camps this summer without one case of COVID-19.

Bids for busing Englewood public school students followed different procedures and standards. The DOE sends out those bids themselves and they were made at 50% capacity. Kravitz wrote in his email that “each district was given the directive to allow for social distancing on buses. Englewood conducted measurements and determined that half capacity would allow for adequate social distancing.” Mitrani said the DOE could have put out a similar bid for non-public school busing themselves, as they have done in the past, although that level still may have been too low for any bus companies to accept. The DOE does not have a per student cap on busing public school students, so they can spend more than $1,000 per student or hire more buses if necessary. Initially, Englewood planned a hybrid in-person and virtual schedule that would have kept the cost down. For now, that can has been kicked down the road. Kravitz announced at the board meeting that Englewood schools will be completely virtual for at least the first marking period.

Before voting, board president Molly Craig-Berry emphasized that a bid was not a commitment. They could send out a bid at higher capacity and would have 10 days from when the bid was sent to get the facts about liability requested by several board members, and then negotiate final details. A motion was made to send out a new bid at 100% capacity, which would actually have been closer to 50% occupancy, but Mitrani thinks the board misconstrued the numbers. The vote failed with four members in favor, three voting no and one abstaining. One board member was absent.

Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes expressed concern in an email to The Jewish Link about the way the decision about busing was made. He wrote: “Numerous residents have reached out to me about this issue, which has a substantial impact on many families in Englewood. I’m disappointed at the way this unfolded, coming as a surprise to many people, without an opportunity to weigh in, or a deep dive on the part of the school board into the effect it has on the community. Nothing has been easy for any of us during this period of COVID-19, but we need to be tactful and consider these effects in our decision-making process. As mayor, I don’t have standing to set policy for our schools, but I don’t want to see any part of the Englewood community marginalized, and I have been in contact with the superintendent and school board to convey concerns and try to facilitate communication.” The mayor wrote that there was still time for an “equitable resolution,” but Mitrani said that with school starting next week, time has run out and parents are working on finding the best solution.

By Bracha Schwartz

 

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