By Tessa Raebeck
Having hoped to arrive at a solution by now, the Sag Harbor School District remains unclear on a generalized approach to helping the six families who are no longer receiving the bus services they have depended on for years.
“I know this is weighing on your mind,” Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent for the district, said at a special meeting called by the board of education Monday night. “Believe me, it’s weighing on our collective minds.”
After years of receiving transportation services from the school district, six families found out on September 9 — the first day of school — that their children are no longer allowed to ride the bus.
The affected families live within one mile from the schools their children attend, primarily in the Hillside neighborhood which borders Route 114. New York State Law mandates school districts provide transportation to high school students living further than three miles from the school and elementary students living further than two miles from the school.
Last May, the board of education put forth a proposition to legalize an existing practice of providing bus services to students who live between one and 15 miles from the schools, rather than the two or three miles mandated by the state. Residents of the district voted to accept that proposition, and it became official school policy.
According to district administrators, although the proposition had the good intention of including more families in the bus service, it ended up officially excluding the six families residing within one mile — six families who had traditionally received transportation, albeit illegally. The families, said the district, had received bus service in previous years not because they were technically supposed to, but because they were simply picked up along the existing bus routes.
“If the proposition did not pass,” said Dr. Bonuso. “In essence we would have been forced to go by the state guidelines and no one under two miles would be [riding the bus].”
Several of the affected parents, along with concerned neighbors and friends, attended Monday’s meeting hoping to hear the board offer a solution on how the district could legally provide service again.
“We have in fact gotten legal clarification and have been talking about all the possibilities involved,” said Dr. Bonuso. “We’d like to invite any and all of you to schedule an appointment to come see me and we will talk about the specific circumstances that are out there and see if we can find some sort of resolution.”
“We came down here to talk about this and try to get a resolution, which I thought we were going to get tonight,” replied Nicholas Mazzeo, a parent whose children are no longer receiving transportation.
“Our goal is certainly to settle this as soon as possible,” said Theresa Samot, president of school board. “But, as Carl said, each situation is a little different and there may be a different way.”
Dr. Bonuso cited circumstances such as childcare and measurement protocol that would perhaps allow for changes, but necessitate the district deal with each family on an individual level. A general solution that would allow for all families within one mile to be transported could only be legally attained through actions such as designating the area off of Route 114 a child safety zone or passing another transportation proposition, both of which would take extensive amounts of time without a guaranteed outcome, said board members.
“The board is trying to find a legal, reasonable solution that goes within the guidelines of the proposition that was approved by the voters,” said board member David Diskin. “Having each of you come to explain your situation would be the easiest way.”
Several parents expressed appreciation of the board’s voiced concern, but still questioned why parents were not notified of the changes until the first day of school.
“I have one child and she doesn’t take the bus,” said Vanessa Leggard. “But I have a major issue with the communication that is administered right now between the board of education and the parents.”
“Communication was not good,” responded board member Mary Anne Miller. “It’s not acceptable, so we need to apologize for that and there’s not much we can do two, three weeks in except for to say that we’re very sorry. This is not what anybody intended. We are very sympathetic and hope that we can work together to find the best solution for everybody.”
“Had this proposition been spelled out I would have done the measurements back in May,” said Geraldine Merola, a parent in the Hillside district.
The distance is measured from the flagpoles in front of each school, respectively, to the edge of the family’s driveway. Since the measurement goes from each school rather than a central point, a student could legally ride the bus to the elementary school, but upon graduating to Pierson, no longer be in the mile range of busing and therefore no longer allowed to ride the bus.
District administrators said they are looking at measurement protocol in hopes of finding a way to circumvent the proposition and legally include the six families.
“We spent one night in the Brandywine development backing up Ms. Merola’s driveway trying to find any point we could,” said John O’Keefe, the school business administrator.
“Measuring is a very interesting topic that we’ve been advised on,” said Diskin. “How we measure can make a big difference.”
Every member of the school board voiced regret over the lack of communication and their dedication to finding an expedient solution for the affected families. Dr. Bonuso reiterated his invitation to parents to schedule an appointment with him to discuss their options.
“I would encourage you to give me a call literally in the next few days,” he said. “If it’s a circumstance that requires you being here any time of day or night we’ll maneuver it so I’ll be here. I will make myself available.”