The Bus Stops Here in SOMA
Transportation law means money follows students out of the district and on the bus to non-public schools
As iconic as an apple for the teacher, the big yellow bus is a symbol of school. In the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD), transportation claims 4.3% of the budget, or $4,382,994 for 2010-11. Seeing parents cluster on nearly every corner of Ridgewood Road waiting for the Marshall bus, or watching kids gather for a ride to South Mountain School or Seth Boyden illustrates that figure daily: local students are on the move, while transportation costs are on the rise.
Less visible but just as costly is state-mandated transportation or funding for students who attend private schools such as Montclair Kimberly Academy and Seton Hall Prep. Last year, some 266 students were bused to private schools, while another 491 received payment in lieu of busing. In March testimony to the New Jersey State Budget Committee, Superintendent Brian Osborne put the total cost to the district at about $750,000 annually.
In a year when Osborne has warned the community that cuts are coming, local bus routes are likely to be reconsidered. Discussion has already begun in South Orange municipal meetings about a West Montrose "hazardous" route that runs to and from Marshall School.
In fact, SOMSD runs several types of buses. State law N. J. S. A. 18A:39-1 requires that elementary students who live 2 miles, and high school students who live 2.5 miles from school be offered transportation. Special education students who have specific needs described in their IEPs also receive transportation, regardless of distance.
"Courtesy" busing, routes that the district has chosen to run, include buses to Seth Boyden that transport children from both South Orange and Maplewood and those that serve the Marshall-Jefferson pairing.
Under the courtesy busing umbrella, "hazardous routes" are established, in collaboration with municipal government, because of perceived safety concerns.
Other district buses shuttle between buildings, such as the South Mountain and South Mountain Annex bus, and the route between Columbia High School and the Montrose campus.
In addition, SOMSD buses students to a number of local private schools, including Kent Place, Oratory Prep and Oak Knoll. N.J.S.A. 18A;39-1 requires districts that bus students to public schools offer transportation or aid in lieu of transportation to eligible students who attend non-profit non-public schools. The "aid in lieu" figure is set by the state at $884 and totaled some $410,000 in SOMSD last year. Parents apply for the benefit in March; payment is made in June of the following school year.
In order to be eligible, a student in South Orange or Maplewood must live more than 2 miles from school (2.5 for a high school student) and fewer than 20.
The district makes the decision whether to run a bus route to a cluster of schools, such as this year's Summit route, or to write checks. This mandate from the state is limited to districts that bus students to public schools. Summit, for example, doesn't bus regular education students in the community. Therefore, Summit residents are ineligible for transportation or "aid in lieu."
Despite spring's sweeping education cuts, this provision is largely unchallenged. In fact, a recent report authored by The Governor's Study Commission on New Jersey's Nonpublic Schools, a group that was disbanded by Governor Christie on September 10, 2010, recommended keeping the program in place and enhancing it. The group also urged the state to "make every effort to maintain CPI [consumer price indexes] in the statutory ceiling." In other words, the recommendation asks the state to keep the "in lieu" payments on pace with rising prices.
The study, entitled "Quality Education for All of New Jersey's Children: The Importance of Supporting the Complementary Relationship Between New Jersey's Public and Nonpublic Schools," was released by Christie in July of this year. The governor cited the study, noting that private and public schools save $2.7 billion public dollars each year. Local non-public school parents, none of whom chose to be quoted by name, sometimes echo this sentiment, noting that the transportation benefit is very little compared the cost of educating a student in the district. (The current per-pupil cost is $14,169 in this district of 6,500.)
The past nine months saw swift and dramatic changes in New Jersey's education funding, and this year is likely to bring further shifts. Locally, transportation is a significant percentage of a tight budget. On the state level, funding changes in all areas of education remain a possibility. For now, the only certainty about school transportation is this: in the morning and in the afternoon, the big yellow bus will be at the corner for the students in South Orange and Maplewood.