CHATHAM–Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo met with parents and community members Tuesday, September 1, to discuss the district’s new one-bell busing system. Under the new system, approved by the board last spring and accounted for in the school budget taxpayers voted on in May, all students, from elementary through high school, will use the same buses at the same time, rather than the staggered bus routes of previous years, when older students were picked up and dropped off earlier then elementary school students.
Letters to parents with bus numbers, locations of stops and pickup times were mailed out to students’ homes yesterday. For security reasons the district will not be publishing the bus routes in the local papers as they have in the past.
About 30 community members attended Tuesday’s meeting; many were parents concerned about where and when their children were getting on and off the bus. Ms. Nuciforo started the meeting by talking about new volume of students on the buses, which carry a maximum of 65 people. Because the buses will be at capacity, she explained, she could not accommodate 40 families’ requests to have their students get on one bus in the morning and get on a different bus in the afternoon for childcare.
Ms. Nuciforo did stress throughout the meeting that the district is prepared to reevaluate plan every day. She also said the district should know by October who rides each bus and an actual headcount for each vehicle. The district is obligated to give a seat to all students who qualify for bus service.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said the plan to meet the requests of parents who need students dropped off at babysitters or daycare after school or students who may have two addresses in the district because their parents are divorced. Students who do not ride the bus because of seasonal sports or afterschool programs will not lose their seats if changes are made. Ms. Nuciforo said they will continue to reviewing the bussing through the year.
Delena Schaefer, a parent of an elementary school student, said of the new system, “This is unacceptable.” Her daughter goes to daycare after school, since both Ms. Schaefer and her husband work. She said if the bus dropped her daughter off at home after school no one would be there. Other working parents talked about the inconvenience of the new system. “I would have rather paid the $30 [more in taxes] and have my child dropped off where I need to,” said one parent.
A mother whose children split time between her house and their father’s said, “I feel like my children are being punished for my divorce.”
Ms. Nuciforo said throughout the meeting that the busing decision was made to save the district money in tough economic times. “This is not an attempt to get parents or upset parents,” she said. “We had a transportation system that [was] generous,” she said, noting that under the old system a full-size school bus would sometimes carry only eight students. She warned that the new system is “not as easy as it used to be, but we couldn’t afford the system you had.”
As for student safety, there are cameras on the buses that can be reviewed in case of an incident. Kristen Reno, the new principal at the elementary school, said her old district used cameras on the busses and described as “a great tool.”
For more immediate action, older students are being trained as bus monitors. Ms. Nuciforo said they would be a friendly presence for younger students on the bus.
David O’Connor, a board member who attended the meeting, said that the board also updated it policies about behavior on the bus and the support it will give bus drivers who come to the administration with complaints.
Three other board members also attended the meeting, Elizabeth MacFarlane, Francis Iaconetti and Fred Hutchinson.
Mr. O’Connor confirmed that as soon as two weeks into the start of school the district might be able to look at the bus routes and determine whether there are ways to accommodate students’ special transportation needs.
Ms. Nuciforo said that the district needs to meet all 40 requests and not just one at a time as space becomes available.
Board member Hutchinson said, “I don’t necessarily support were we are right now.” He worried that the new plan was putting stress on local parents and possibly putting daycare services out of business.
Ms. Nuciforo said that the new system is not trying to hurt families or businesses in the community. “It’s an issue that is very important to me,” she said, adding that as working mother she has had to address her own childcare issues in the past.
The superintendent said she has spoken with the district’s lawyer, Keith Flint, who told her that the district is responsible for transporting students to provide education.
She urged parents to talk to their childcare providers to see if concessions could be made. “Your issues matter,” she told the parents.