The NJ school district is implementing a bus service. How did it happen

Ana Paula Cruz does not drive and her husband uses their car to get to work. So the family cherished the courtesy bus that took their eldest child to his elementary school while Cruz accompanied his youngest child to another school in their South Orange-Maplewood school district.

But just days before the start of the new school year this month, Cruz learned that the district had canceled courtesy bus service. She spent $32 on an Uber ride to get her fifth grader to school on opening day, then took another Uber to take her youngest to another school.

“We have no means of transport and our children cannot go to a closer school. It makes no sense,” Cruz said.

The school district’s decision to end courtesy bus service and the way it was handled has upset many who relied on the bus service – and has been embroiled in an ongoing debate that has embroiled parents and administrators about the district’s ambitious efforts to integrate its schools, illustrating the potential minefields New Jersey districts face when tackling their often highly segregated student bodies.

In an ongoing 2018 lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Education, Latino Civic Action and the NAACP argued that the state’s public schools were racially and economically segregated and that the state had no not solved the problem. A Superior Court judge heard arguments in March and a decision is imminent.

The South Orange-Maplewood integration plan has drawn ire from some parents because it is far more restrictive than a similar plan that Montclair – another Essex County suburban community – has used since the 1980s. Montclair allows parents to rank schools by preference, the South Orange-Maplewood system assigns schools to new elementary students based strictly on an algorithm.

The loss of courtesy buses, meanwhile, has left parents in South Orange and Maplewood scrambling to change work schedules and find carpools. Some have not been able to find a permanent cure.

New Jersey only requires districts to provide buses for elementary students who live more than 2 miles from the school. As a result of previous desegregation initiatives, the South Orange-Maplewood District had provided additional courtesy buses to several groups of students who lived within 1-2 miles of the school.

A district spokesperson said 90 children benefited from a courtesy bus, but school board chairman Thair Joshua told the community in July that 127 students were affected.

The decision to end courtesy buses was made at a board meeting in April 2021. This gave parents more than a year to prepare, according to former board member Annemarie Maini. But parents say there was no communication or letter reminding them of the key change in transportation policy until July 5. Cruz only heard about the change at the end of August.

The school board tried to separate the discussion of canceling the buses from the discussion of its inclusive school program, but board members made comments saying that keeping the buses for those 90 children would cause “inequity” since new students within the same 1- to 2 -mile distance who travel to schools based on the onboarding algorithm are not eligible for courtesy bus service.

And in a March 2021 email to Jeffrey Bennett, an education blogger and parent whose children are affected by the bus change, District Superintendent Ronald Taylor said cutting the bus program has helped. to plan for integration, as it “gives us the space to redesign and bid our transportation needs” which “will certainly be affected by the outcome of our intentional integration initiative”.

Parents said the problem could have been solved by adding buses for children affected by the integration plan, without removing them for other pupils.

“This shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle and the district should find ways to address it for these parents,” said Stefan Lallinger, who leads the Bridges Collaborative, an integration initiative of the Century Foundation, a think tank Washington progressive.

“The bus problem for me is a minor issue, but minor issues have the ability to derail much bigger things,” Lallinger said. Integration plans like the South Orange-Maplewood District’s were a “pretty successful model” nationally, he said.

Many community members – who broadly supported the integration plans – believed the district would either allow students to transfer to schools that are easier to get to or create new bus routes. The district did neither.

When she learned that the courtesy bus would no longer be available, Cruz attempted to see if any of her children could attend Clinton Elementary School, a 10-minute walk from her home. But the district has a “no exceptions” transfer policy, updated after the onboarding initiative, which refuses to consider parenting difficulties – even if the difficulties involve child care, transportation or working hours.

District policy does not consider loss of transportation a hardship. “Hardship is arbitrary,” said Joshua, the board chairman, when asked why the district wouldn’t give these parents any leeway in its “no exceptions” transfer policy.

The district said it has no funds to return to the old bus system or to expand buses to children in the integration plan this year. “We can’t afford it,” Joshua said.

“All I’m asking is for my daughter to get on a bus or change schools,” Cruz said. “But they deny us those two things.”

Deployment of the integration plan

The district is in the second year of its three-year “Intentional Integration Initiative.” The system assigns new elementary students to a school each year using a random number generated by an algorithm based on income, education level, race, siblings, and proximity to school. Parents have no choice in which school their children attend. The goal is to have each school closely reflect the district as a whole, according to its website. The district has seven elementary schools and two middle schools.

Some 54% of students in the district are white, 25% are black and 9% are Hispanic, according to the Department of Education. Nearly 11% of students are economically disadvantaged.

The school district said that in its first year, the integration initiative reduced income gaps between schools.

At Seth Boyden Elementary School, 73% of kindergarten students were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds before the initiative began. This figure dropped to 37% after the first year of the initiative.

And by sending more low-income students from the Seth Boyden neighborhood to district schools, the number of students in all Boyden grades from economically disadvantaged backgrounds fell to 5% from 43% the previous year.

Many parents who lost the courtesy bus this year have children who are not attending the elementary school closest to them because the district is mixing some of its K-5 students at two elementary schools, as part of a 1970s integration requirement that resulted in children being bussed from a predominantly white neighborhood in Maplewood to a school in a predominantly black neighborhood in South Orange and vice versa, according to Joshua, the president advice. For parents with one child at each school – and who live between the two schools – morning drop-offs can be nightmarish in traffic.

Dangerous routes

Parents argue that ending bus service to those who had courtesy bus service in the past and denying it to those affected by the integration initiative forces these primary school children to go to school. to school on sometimes dangerous routes.

Many believe the district failed to do its due diligence in designating certain walking routes as unsafe after ending courtesy buses, which would have provided crossing guards on those streets.

Cruz’s 10-year-old daughter “should cross streets without sidewalks as well as streets without school crossing guards,” she wrote in an email to the superintendent.

Students who live 1-2 miles from the school they attend will not be provided with a courtesy bus to and from school.  Students and parents arrive for the first day of school at Delia Bolden Elementary School in Maplewood, NJ on Thursday, September 8, 2022.

“The board is not responsible for determining unsafe routes” under state law, Joshua said in an interview. “The council coordinated with the city and asked for a reassessment,” he said, but they were told the routes did not need to be updated. Joshua said in a subsequent email that the council had conversations with local police, municipal engineers and other city departments.

Joshua said he was not aware of any new routes designated as “dangerous”.

‘My hands are tied’

Many parents who gathered outside Delia Bolden Elementary School in Maplewood on the first day of class said they support the district’s integration plan.

Some said they thought aspects of the plan, such as its “no exceptions” transfer policy, should have been discussed more transparently. One parent pointed to the nearby town of Montclair, where an integration program allowing parents to rank schools by preference has been in effect since the 1980s.

A petition to restore the courtesy transportation program has more than 1,700 signatures – and mentions the Montclair program.

“Rather than giving a bus to non-bus kids, the council took the bus away,” Bennett said. People were very supportive of the onboarding algorithm when it was approved in 2020, he said, but its “transfer ban is cruel”.

Cruz, the mother who took Ubers to school on the first day, said she was thrilled that her 7-year-old nearly overcame his speech delay after joining the district. “Education was the only reason we moved here,” she said.

“According to the school mapping system, I am 3 km away, but on Google Maps I live 2.1 miles” from the school, she said – just far enough to be eligible for a school bus under state rules. She had hoped the difference between the school’s calculation and Google was small enough that the district would approve a school bus for at least one of her two elementary students.

Cruz, whose husband works in another school district, said Wednesday she has spent $187 in the five days since school reopened to get her kids to and from school.

“My hands are tied,” she said. “We have to figure it out as we go.”