Marshall School students who live in the West Montrose area of South Orange may lose their school bus if talks about canceling the service succeed.
The Board of Education estimates a cost savings of approximately $50,000 if it no longer needs to provide bus service to West Montrose, which lies within two miles of the school and technically should not qualify for bus service as prescribed by New Jersey state statute. But the route between the neighborhood and Marshall School has since 2001 been designated a "hazardous walking route," and accordingly the Board has been obligated to provide the neighborhood's Marshall students with bus transportation.
The proposal was discussed by the Village's Public Safety Committee at its meeting last Thursday evening, September 16. Committee members, including Village Trustees Michael Goldberg and Howard Levison, Police Chief James Chelel, and Fire Chief Jeff Markey, all agreed that the question of whether or not to retain the West Montrose bus is a "tough issue."
"I do think it is a hazardous route," said Chelel. "I don't think [the designation] is something that you want to do away with."
West Montrose residents have complained for years about drivers who speed along the portion of Montrose Avenue west of Scotland Road, where there is a steep bridge over the railroad tracks adjacent to Mountain Station that impedes drivers' vision and has contributed to many accidents.
"We've had numerous instances where cars and SUVs are going so fast down West Montrose they actually leave the roadway and wind up on sidewalks," said Village Trustee and West Montrose resident Janine Bauer, who was not present at the Public Safety Committee meeting. "They've also hit and taken down light poles, guide rails, and fences. It's scary. Young children would be walking targets for such errant drivers."
Bauer added that neighborhood residents have asked the Village to deploy traffic-calming measures along their section of Montrose Avenue numerous times over previous years, "and gotten nowhere."
Because of the railroad tracks, West Montrose residents have very limited walking route options in the direction of Marshall School. The only other possible walking route toward the school that crosses over or under the train tracks would be along Mead Street, which would require a significant southward detour for most residents.
Goldberg speculated that the issue of whether children would be forced to walk along a hazardous route to Marshall School was actually a "red herring." He noted that the school consists only of kindergarten through second grade, and said that parents would most likely opt to drive their children. But Chelel cautioned him: "Somebody will have their kid walk along that route. If something happens, the Village and the Board of Education will be liable."
Andrée Laney, a resident of East Clark Place who attended the Committee meeting, testified that the existence of the bus route is "the one thing that helps [my husband and me] manage our unmanageable routine." She said that because Marshall's school day starts comparatively late—at 8:45 a.m.—working parents would find it extremely difficult to take the extra time in the morning to drive their kids over to the school. Laney's husband, a teacher in Livingston, leaves the house early. She herself is an attorney who works in Short Hills.
Laney noted that the demographics of West Montrose are composed largely of dual-income working families. "Our resources are limited, and our taxes are continually increasing," she said. "If there's no bus, then I'll probably be forced to hire a nanny to get my children to school."
Chair of the Citizens Public Safety Committee in Sheena Collum said that although she sympathized with Laney's difficulties and those of other West Montrose residents, "socioeconomics can't be a factor" in considering whether the bus route stays or goes. "The chief [of police] needs to be the expert opinion. And he's saying it's a hazardous route." She added that Chelel is the second consecutive South Orange police chief to concur in the hazardous route designation.
Bauer commented, "I can't possibly see how the district assigns this stop—not the route, but two stops in the neighborhood—the cost of $50,000. The school district has been saying for some time that eliminating those stops from the pre-existing Jefferson to Marshall route will save them money, but they have yet to prove how any savings would materialize."
According to Goldberg, the elimination of the West Montrose stops would enable the Board of Education to remove the bus entirely; the students riding the bus to Marshall from the Jefferson area of Maplewood would then be reassigned to other buses.
But Bauer disputes this claim. "This bus is not going away, even if they do eliminate the stops in West Montrose," she says. "The Board insisted on closing the Montrose School, which had been the local school for the West Montrose neighborhood, and instituting the Marshall-Jefferson pairing as it currently exists. They have to continue busing the Jefferson-area students over to Marshall. We need to drill down and make them demonstrate exactly how they would realize such significant cost savings by removing two stops on a pre-existing route."