Teaneck — Several hundred concerned parents gathered at the Teaneck Board of Education public budget meeting last week at Teaneck High School. While such meetings generally only attract a handful of attendees, hordes of township residents from the Jewish community stood in the back or sat on the floor, waiting to make public comments to protest a proposal to consolidate bus stops to four staging locations in an attempt to save an annual cost of $116,000 for non- public school busing.
Teaneck’s annual budget for public schools is over $95 million, which is largely considered to be one of the highest budgets in the state per student. Approximately 2,400 students in the township attend private, religious or charter schools. There are 11,000 taxpayer families with school-age students in Teaneck.
“Busing is the primary benefit our children receive from the Teaneck Board of Education. The proposed changes represent but one tenth of one percent of the total school budget,” said Laura Fein Ramirez, a Teaneck parent who sends her children to private schools. “This small token, barely significant but critical to thousands of children, represents the compensation of one teacher. And yet we pay our full tax burden and only ask that this remain in the budget so our children can travel safely to and from school each day.”
While school board members sought to ensure that the community knows their priority is the education of the children in their care, and that budget cuts are a necessary maneuver, Teaneck parents who send their children to private schools indicated that they are taxed the same as parents who send children to Teaneck public schools, but busing is often the only item that they avail themselves of from the Board of Education.
Many Teaneck parents who attended the meeting were made aware of it via Facebook and emails sent through their schools. A widely circulated post stated: “A meeting will be convened to formally consolidate all non-public school bus stops. The decision will be voted on by the Board of Education. If this decision is implemented, parents would have to walk or drive their children to one of the Teaneck Public schools to access busing. There is also the possibility of everyone centrally gathering at the FDU (Fairleigh Dickinson University) parking lot and buses will be leaving/returning to various schools from that central point.”
In another widely circulated email, BOE member Ardie Walser complained that a Teaneck township council member had inappropriately alerted the community of the public meeting, saying that this meeting indicated only “the second presentation” of the board’s preliminary budget, intimating that extensive parental attendance and publicity on the topic was unwarranted. “We have a ways to go before we reach the point of having details on what will be reduced and how that might take place. Busing is a complicated matter and requires input from other governing bodies. While we appreciate others asking folks to attend our meeting because we want the input from parents and residents, the editorials are not helpful and at this point are based solely on rumors,” said Walser.
“When we see the attempt to suppress discussion of this, and the blaming of a council member who was merely notifying taxpayers that an issue that affected their interests was going to be discussed at a public meeting, that is outrageous. There’s no explanation other than hostility to the Jewish population that makes this make sense,” said Ramirez.
“I am deeply offended by the school board’s treatment of the Jewish taxpayers of Teaneck. Several board members seem to forget they are elected to serve the entire community, not just a subset thereof,” Ramirez added.
Board members made matters worse by saying repeatedly in many forums that the Jewish community had started false rumors about the busing issue. Ramirez expounded on this further. “One Board member described it to me as ‘paranoia’ and ‘falsehoods,’ when in fact it was their own employee who emailed [the most circulated missive]: ‘It’s official…All parents will drive or walk their children to one of four of our schools each day or it may change and be FDU parking lot for everyone.’”
Former Teaneck mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin said this issue has come up several times over the past six years. And again, dozens of parents lined up at the meeting to publicly express tremendous concern for a variety of reasons. “This is a traffic and safety nightmare,” said Teaneck resident and parent Mark Kirsch. “Not just for parents but for neighbors and public servants as well, not to mention police overtime. If they want to save money, the BOE should be looking at teacher efficacy and waste within its own system. How much are they spending per pupil and where does Teaneck rank statewide educationally? I think targeting the non-public school families is like putting a band-aid on a cough in terms of savings.”
Shira Ashendorf, another concerned parent, concurred with the safety issue and “starting up with the busing is again picking a fight with the Orthodox community and, personally, I want to make sure Teaneck does not become a divisive community again. We have put that all to bed and rebuild. I do not want this to become a religious issue and divide the township.”
Gervonn Rice, vice president of the BOE, expressed that it “becomes a challenge” when so few things can be changed. Another board member, Clara Williams, said, “The BOE is mostly concerned with its students and funding for their programs. We haven’t received much needed state funding and the busing issue is not a priority.”
Laizer Kornwasser, another Teaneck resident, thanked the board for its hard work but said he felt “this will be a short-term decision with a long-term financial impact.” He went on to say that families might decide to move out of Teaneck if the busing is consolidated and that will cause an even bigger strain on the budget, as families who use the public school system will move in.
Concerned parent Shari B. said, “We do not get what we pay for with our property taxes. My child was eligible but not entitled to special needs programming because he doesn’t attend the public school. He can only receive one day a week of services for those various therapies.” She implored the board not to take away the one service, busing, that she does get from the town.
“These issues should not drive a wedge in our community,” according to resident Ari Jacobson, “I was a product of consolidated busing growing up and the whole process took over an hour. That interferes with a child’s education as well.”
Jason Castle, a Teaneck Town Council member and parent of a charter school student, commended the BOE for what is not an easy job. “The schools are funded by the 11,000 homes in this community and I want to see all the parents in this room receive what they should because they are all paying the same amount.” He emphasized that the bus stops should remain in place and he wants to “work with them to make it work.”
The most well-received public comments of the evening came from Teaneck Police Captain Kenneth Croonquist, who is in charge of operations. “The police department does not recommend this plan. This will increase vehicular traffic at schools and create a safety hazard for many, many people.” He received a standing ovation.
The next public meeting is set to take April 8, 2015, during Chol Hamoed Passover.
By Banji Ganchrow