MILLBURN, NJ -- On “International Walk to School” on Wednesday, the Millburn School district encouraged its students to walk or bike to school, as part of an effort to reduce congestion and improve children's health and fitness. But for many parents in the Knollwood section of Short Hills near Millburn Middle School, allowing their children to walk to school is not an option.
Residents say the lack of sidewalks, roads with blind curves and cars speeding on busy Old Short Hills Road makes it unsafe to walk to school, particularly for elementary school children at Hartshorn School that can mean a two-mile walk.
And now, in what some parents described as a bolt out of the blue, the free busing service the Knollwood section has received for nearly two decades will no longer be available to them.
The Millburn School district recently notified 70 families that they will no longer be eligible for free busing after an internal audit revealed that they do not live in the mandated busing zone. New Jersey State Laws require school districts to provide busing to only those students who live more than 2 miles from their public elementary and middle schools and more than 2.5 miles from their public high schools.
“In reviewing the listing for eligibility for transportation, we found some inaccuracies,” School Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider said at the Board of Education meeting Monday. “A number of addresses previously listed as eligible for mandated busing were found to be under the mandated mileage. The discrepancy was in the listing of those who were eligible when compared to the mileage on our mapping system.”
Families affected by the change now have to make their own transportation arrangements or opt for “subscription busing," which costs $775 a child, capped at $1,550 a family in the 2018-19 year.
Some parents are disputing the distance calculations with the district since by their calculations they either meet the 2-mile criteria or fall just short of it. The district relies on the Transportation department’s Transfinder app to calculate the distance in accordance with the eligibility requirements stipulated by law. Parents present at Monday's meeting voiced concern that the issue was less to do with the new subscription fee and more to do with the lack of viable alternatives.
Andree Bourgon, a parent residing in the Knollwood section said she was “caught off-guard” by the written notification of the change, which she described as being cold and abrupt with little explanation or background on the audit.
Bourgon, who spoke several times during the public meeting on the issue, said she does not dispute the fact that her family does not qualify for free busing since they live within 2 miles of the school. But she argued that the board had not factored in the bigger impact of the change.
“Thirty-five families in Knollwood will be impacted by this. If they drive, what impact does it have on Millburn Middle School and Hartshorn? Have the principals been contacted? Have the police been contacted to discuss what impact would be on traffic patterns?” said Bourgon, adding “We feel this is another knee-jerk reaction to an overall lack of a strategic plan around transportation.”
The audit of the mandated routes was part of an effort to ensure that the district was being efficient and equitable in delivering subscription busing board Vice President Kate Foss said. The Knollwood section had been receiving free service even though they should have technically been paying for it. “I understand no one wants to pay the fee, but you have to decide a guideline and follow it so it is equitable for everybody.”
Problems related to busing has been a major administrative headache for the district this year, leading the board to step up its focus on transportation. In January, the board set up an ad-hoc Transportation Committee led by board member Alex Zaltsman which meets once a week. The board has since appointed a new transportation supervisor and has said that it has already begun putting together routes for the next academic year, which it hopes to firm up by the end of June.
The board also recently decided to raise the fees for subscription busing from $590 per child previously to ensure that the service was “self-sustaining." The board’s analysis of the costs found that subscription busing had been operating at a loss for years. Of the 25 tiered bus routes, 17 exist only for subscription busing.
Joy Sajous of Old Short Hills Road said she doubted anyone lived further from Hartshorn Elementary than she did. “Who is living 2 miles from any other school…if anyone lives further than where I live, it would be a different district altogether,” she said.
Despite living close to school, not everyone walks to school. And while the reasons for this are many, the lack of safe walking paths is an oft-cited factor. The district is not required by law to provide busing for students who live within the prescribed limits to schools even if the route to school is considered hazardous.
The board has said that safety along public roadways and walkways is the responsibility of the municipality and not the school district. Parents argued that the district needs to address the issue of safe walkways, including maintaining a list of hazardous routes and working with the community and the town administration to ensure safe routes to schools.
“For me, it is not about subscription, it is about safety for the kids,” said Brian Lawrence. “I want to be sure if the bus is taken away that we work together to make sure there are safe routes to the schools.”
Lawrence urged the board to consider availing of funding from the New Jersey Safe Routes To School program to help build sidewalks to schools so that more children can walk and bike to school.