Written by Matt Spillane
For years, the responsibility of transporting children to private schools has fallen on public school districts. In better times, the arrangement was carried out largely without opposition. But as districts search for ways to keep budgets down, there is a debate brewing over how much help public tax dollars should provide to bus children to private schools.
New York state law requires districts to transport private-school students to school up to 15 miles away from their homes.
According to the district, it currently buses 232 students to 22 private schools in Katonah, Bedford, Somers, Yorktown and Brewster in New York and Greenwich and Ridgefield in Connecticut.
The district did not have figures for how much private-school busing costs Katonah-Lewisboro, but other districts in the area say that the costs are significant.
In December, the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents (LHCSS) wrote a position paper to lawmakers in Albany with suggestions to relieve the burden of the state’s various unfunded mandates, and one of the suggestions was to increase state aid for transportation or decrease the 15-mile private-school busing range to five miles.
LHCSS, of which Katonah-Lewisboro is a member, includes school administrators from districts in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Dutchess counties.
Dr. Ken Mitchell, treasurer of LHCSS and the superintendent of the South Orangetown school district in Rockland County, told The Ledger recently that “to become more efficient and ‘live within their means,’ public schools across the state are maximizing class sizes, cutting programs, reducing low-enrollment and non-mandated courses, and eliminating that which appears ‘private’ or ‘select’ for a small number of students. Scaling back disproportionately high transportation costs for a minimal number of private school students is consistent with other cost-saving measures being implemented across the region during these times of austerity.”
In the position paper, LHCSS said that when the economy was better, districts received state aid to fund much of the costs of transporting students to private schools. That aid has significantly decreased in the last several years, though, while transportation costs have risen, and LHCSS would like to see that aid restored or the mileage-limit reduced.
Dr. Mitchell said that LHCSS is willing to partner with private schools to restore prior funding levels for transportation costs.
The Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, which Katonah-Lewisboro is a member of, has also suggested that legislators reduce the private-school mileage range from 15 miles to five miles.
In addition to the reduction of the mileage range, another cost-cutting suggestion is to have private-school students use public transportation when possible to get to school. The Mamaroneck school district considered that move during its budget discussions this year but decided against it after parents complained about their children potentially having to take trams and public buses to school.
There are plenty of passionate voices on the side of the private-school parents, led by State Sen. Greg Ball. Mr. Ball, whose 40th District includes Lewisboro and Katonah, supports a bill currently before the state Senate that would extend the 15-mile range to 25 miles.
Last month, he helped organize a forum at Kennedy Catholic High School to hear from residents in favor of maintaining busing to private schools. He also hosted a conference call about the issue and announced a second forum at Kennedy Catholic High School on Monday, April 16, at 7 p.m.
“The families that choose to send their children to parochial school are still paying school taxes and this busing is one of the few tangible benefits they receive,” Sen. Ball said. “If this proposal becomes a reality, the state of New York will once again be unfairly targeting those parents who are merely attempting to provide their children with expanded opportunities and a great education. The assault on our families, Catholic families in particular, must end and common sense must prevail.”
Sen. Ball also helped form the Citizens Advisory Council, which is planning a trip to Albany on Wednesday, April 18, to meet with legislators and members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Council to discuss the issue.
Dr. Mitchell said that LHCSS has presented its concerns to the Mandate Relief Council and that hopes it will “examine the benefits that a ‘compromise-driven adjustment’ will have for taxpayers across the region.”
“Any effort to increase the mileage limit,” he said, “is simply another unfunded mandate that adds to the burden on the local taxpayer and drains resources from public schools that are trying to maintain other mandated programs and services within the 2% tax cap.”
Katonah-Lewisboro school board President Mark Lipton would not comment on the matter now but said that the issue could come up at one of the next two board meetings — on April 12 and April 24 — when mandate relief will be discussed. (ARTICLE)