By KATIE HOOS
The ongoing debate surrounding the Mamaroneck school district’s transportation policy will end in court.
On April 22, Fairness for All Kids—a grassroots group that includes parents and community members in Larchmont and Mamaroneck—filed a lawsuit against Superintendent Dr. Robert Shaps and the Board of Education in response to the district’s decision to dismantle the busing program for high school students attending nine area private and parochial schools in favor of public transportation.
The lawsuit follows the April 8 vote of the board to amend the district’s transportation policy—which currently transports all public and nonpublic school students who live beyond a certain distance from their school in yellow school buses—to provide public transportation passes for certain nonpublic high school students as of July 1.
Those students affected will receive Bee-Line bus passes and/or Metro North passes paid for by the district and will travel via public transportation to school.
Fairness for All Kids argues the board is in violation of the New York State Education Law 3635 Article 1, which mandates the district must supply sufficient transportation for all children residing within the school district who need transportation due to the remoteness of their school. Transportation must be provided for children in grades kindergarten through eight who live more than two miles from their school and for children in grades nine through twelve who live more than three miles from their school.
The maximum distance transportation is provided for is 15 miles.
According to Shaps, these changes will afford the district $98,000 in savings for the 2014-2015 budget year, which was the driving force behind the board’s decision. Shaps said that, while the state paid for transportation costs in previous years, the district is now responsible for 95 percent of the costs and, since the busing was discontinued, the savings will accrue year-after-year.
The board voted to approve the amended resolution by a 6 to 1 vote, with board member Robin Nichinsky casting the lone dissenting vote.
But parents and members of the community who oppose the policy change, believe the district is not abiding by state law and are putting children in harms way by sending them un-chaperoned on dangerous public transportation routes.
“Taking legal action is a reluctant last step parents feel they have been forced into by a school district that has refused to hear our concerns or answer direct questions about their misguided policy,” Svetlana Wasserman, a member of the Fairness for All Kids Coalition, said. “Their insistence on moving forward has left parents with no choice but to take this to the courts.”
But the district, which maintains it has every right under the law to pay for train and bus passes rather than provide yellow school bus transportation, stated it will defend its decision in court.
“The petition filed contains numerous factual and legal inaccuracies, and we will be vigorously opposing it,” Shaps said, noting the inaccuracy of the petition’s claim that the revised policy discriminates against nonpublic school students. “Our change in policy was made in consultation with our legal counsel and is based on numerous decisions by the [state] commissioner of education over the past 20 years, upholding a district’s ability to use public transportation to meet its obligation under the law to transport students to school.”
The district will join neighboring Rye Neck and Pelham school districts who are using public transportation passes as a way to transport some of its students.
According to the group’s attorney, Kathy Dandy, the group is not seeking any monetary benefit from the suit, but wants the court to declare the amendment illegal and restore busing for nonpublic high school students.
“The only people losing busing here are private school students,” Dandy said, adding that the new policy discriminates against nonpublic students since public school busing was not included in the amended policy. “All signs point to this being the first step to further changes.”
Currently, Mamaroneck buses less than 300 students out of 5143 students enrolled in the school district.
Under the district’s new policy, approximately 70 of the 372 private school students the district anticipates to transport next year will be impacted. The new policy set a maximum travel time of 90 minutes each way—allowing for one transfer in transportation each way—and a maximum walking distance of three miles each way. If these criteria are not met, the student will continue to receive busing as normal.
The schools affected by the policy change include Fordham Prep, Iona Prep, School of the Holy Child, Resurrection School, Archbishop Stepinac, Thorton-Donovan School, The Ursuline School, Rye Country Day School and the French-American School of New York.