(Updated with comments from Board President Berylin Bosselman, edited for clarity).
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 right by Millburn Middle School, allowing their children to walk to school is just not an option.
Residents say the lack of sidewalks, roads with blind curves and cars speeding down the busy Old Short Hills road at over 40 miles an hour make it unsafe to walk to school, particularly for elementary school children walking nearly 2 miles to Hartshorn School.
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 -- many of them in the Knollwood section -- 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 would now have to either make their own transportation arrangements or opt for “subscription busing”, which would cost them $775 a child, capped at $1,550 a family in the 2018-19 year.
For parents in the Knollwood section, the idea of suddenly having to pay a hefty fee for busing hurts, particularly since walking to Hartshorn elementary is not feasible for many just on safety reasons, let alone distance.
Some parents are disputing the distance calculations with the district, since by their own 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 to the eligibility requirements stipulated by law.
But most parents present at Monday's meeting, said the issue was less to do with the new subscription fee and more to do with the fact that parents had few other viable alternatives.
Andree Bourgon, a parent residing in the Knollwood section said she was “caught offguard” 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 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.”
Board President Berylin Bosselman told TAP that the board was mindful about the impact of the audit on Knollwood residents. But she said that the board had considered multiple factors when making the decision. She added that the board had communicated at its meetings that they were taking a hard look at all transportation matters.
“In terms of it being a surprise, there is no way to communicate this until everything has been looked at. It takes a long time to audit thousands of addresses in Short Hills. Students are also changing school buildings year to year and that changes calculations. For the Superintendent to say early on that we are changing mandated busing would have been premature and caused more chaos.”
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 Monday. She pointed out that the Knollwood section had been receiving free service all these years 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.”
“We did not make this change in an uninformed or knee-jerk way,” Bosselman stressed in an interview with TAP. “These were carefully thought out, vetted and audited steps we took in response to the public’s reaction to busing in the fall.”
Problems related to busing has been a major administrative headache for the district this past 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 a 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. Many families in the district do live within the 2- mile radius of the elementary schools. 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.
Yet, despite living relatively close to school, not everyone walks to school. Many parents still opt for subscription busing, with convenience being a major priority. But the lack of safe walking paths is also an oft-cited factor.
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.”
“No one is suggesting that if you don’t qualify for mandated busing that your children walk to school,” said Bosselman. “That is what subscription busing is for.”
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.
Some districts offer courtesy busing to families that are not eligible for mandated free busing. Here busing is provided for free at a cost to the district. Under courtesy busing, the district is obligated to maintain a list of hazardous routes to school.
But Millburn offers subscription busing, which is different from courtesy busing, in that it charges residents a fee for the service. Under subscription busing, the district is not obligated to adopt a policy on hazardous routes.
The board maintains that safety along public roadways and walkways is the responsibility of the municipality and not the school district. “It’s a township issue, and a police issue,” said Bosselman. “We are totally willing to sit down and be part of the conversation.”
She added that outreach efforts have already begun between Knollwood residents, the board and the township committee to find a solution for safe walkways.