Written by: Michael Risinit
How far school buses will travel to bring students to private schools may become one of the next tugs of war in Albany as the region’s top education officials have suggested reducing the distance and some lawmakers want to increase it.
Late last year, the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents proposed cutting the rides public districts must offer to out-of-district, private-school students from 15 to five miles. The move is among several mandate-relief requests put forth by the council. But the others deal with employee costs and special-education regulations, leaving the bus cuts as possibly the most visible of their proposals.
Any savings, private- and parochial-school officials and parents say, are minor compared to school costs overall. The move also would eliminate the one tangible benefit many private-school parents derive from paying school taxes, they say.
“They believe they have a right to exercise a choice. They pay taxes, and this would forfeit what they normally get,” said the Rev. Mark Vaillancourt, president and principal of Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers.
Vaillancourt said about 60 percent of his 575 students come from more than five miles away. He, along with several elected officials, hosted about 400 parents at Kennedy this month to discuss the proposed reduction.
While Vaillancourt and others, such as Principal Margaret Hamilton at St. Peter’s School in Haverstraw and Walter Johnson, headmaster of The Hackley School in Tarrytown, are concerned about losing the busing, public-school officials say it can’t continue as is.
Mahopac delivers 243 students each day to 17 nonpublic schools up to 14 miles away. Bedford takes 240 students to out-of-district schools in New York and 124 students to such schools in Connecticut. Bedford Superintendent of Schools Jere Hochman said one route dropping 10 students at five schools in Connecticut costs the district $70,000 each year.
“I respect that and understand that,” he said of parents’ deciding to send their children to private school. “This is an economic issue. This is not a philosophical issue.”
South Orangetown Superintendent Ken Mitchell said the state used to reimburse 90 percent of a district’s transportation costs, aid that has been almost eliminated in some cases. South Orangetown in-district busing costs are about $1,100 per student annually but about $3,828 each year for out-of-district rides, he said. The state, he said, needs to reduce the mileage limit or reinstate the aid.
Mitchell said he didn’t expect the issue would be addressed in Albany before September.
Also in Albany is a bill introduced in January by state Sen. William Larkin, an Orange County Republican, to expand the mileage limit for out-of-district transportation to 25 miles. The measure is co-sponsored by state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, who helped organize the Kennedy forum.
“If this proposal becomes a reality … 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,” Ball said.
Johnson said he understands public schools “are facing difficult economic decisions” and that Hackley, like other private schools, “has tremendous economic diversity.”
“This one is so relatively small (in savings) and so potentially divisive, it will undermine communities,” he said.
Suzanne Jacobs co-chairs the Family Association at Kennedy. She echoed Johnson, saying any savings from a reduction in transportation is “putting a Band-Aid on a bigger issue.” Her son is a senior at Kennedy and formerly attended The Harvey School in Katonah, riding a bus for five years.
“You’re paying your taxes for transportation and education,” said Jacobs of Yorktown. “All of the people made this choice, and they’re just asking for transportation.” (ARTICLE)