By Amanda Wyatt
Whether or not public school districts should provide busing to students attending private schools has now become a central issue of debate within the Bridgehampton School District.
Three Bridgehampton mothers are set to launch a new campaign in an effort to require the district to provide transportation for students attending McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead. The initiative comes after their request for busing was denied at the Bridgehampton School Board’s June 27 business meeting.
Currently, the district is bound by state law to provide busing for students who want to attend private schools anywhere within a 15-mile radius. Since McGann-Mercy, the closest Catholic secondary school, is six miles over the limit, the Bridgehampton District cannot legally transport students to the school, said board members at last Wednesday’s meeting. However, the three mothers are willing to go to any lengths in order to extend the limit to include McGann-Mercy.
“We’re prepared to do whatever we need to do,” declared Rachel Kelly, one of the three mothers hoping to expand busing options in Bridgehampton. “Our request has been denied, so whatever the next step would be, we’re willing to do it.”
This next step includes enlisting the help of elected officials, said the parents. Kelly, Tara Hagerman and Mary Ellen Gazda have reached out to New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. in the hopes of arranging a meeting.
“He does seem to want to talk with us,” Kelly said. “We will be setting up a meeting. He is aware of the situation that we’re in.”
The parents also have the option of gathering signatures of Bridgehampton voters to hold a referendum on this matter, according to school superintendent Dr. Lois Favre. In order to do that, they would need to collect signatures on a petition representing a percentage of the voting public in the school district calling for the district to provide transportation to McGann-Mercy. That petition would need to be accepted by the board of education in order for a referendum to be held.
While school board president Nicki Hemby was sympathetic to the parents’ concerns, she explained the issue was beyond the control of the school board.
“We discussed the busing issue at prior meetings, and according to school law we are unable to provide busing past a 15-mile radius,” she said in an interview. “Doing so would be breaking policy. We have not wavered from our original statement.”
The board mentioned the only exception to the 15-mile rule is for students enrolled in special education who can be bused to programs up to 50 miles away. Under this law, Bridgehampton School is allowed to transport students to BOCES in Riverhead.
Several board members also noted the steep cost of shuttling kids to McGann-Mercy and that this request comes at a time when the Bridgehampton School board is already financially pressed.
“We do not have that money in the budget,” said Dr. Favre in an interview. “I do not know the exact cost, as we did not entertain it in the budget, but closer [bus] runs have cost upwards of $50,000.”
In fact, the Bridgehampton School Board announced at their last meeting that they are working on contracts to share busing with the Sag Harbor School District for students attending Our Lady of the Hamptons (OLH), the nearest K-8 Catholic school which is in Southampton. Sharing with Sag Harbor, rather than contracting with a bus service provider, could potentially save Bridgehampton School $32,000 annually.
However, an agreement had not been reached as of this week, Dr. Favre noted.
“If we go in that direction, I don’t believe there will be any impact on the students,” she said.
Dr. Favre added the board is working to ensure that Bridgehampton students “will not be on the buses for a prolonged time, should we choose to contract with Sag Harbor.”
Currently Kelly, Hagerman and Gazda all send their children to OLH, which provides education from pre-school through eighth grade. Gazda’s daughter, Margaret, is about to turn 12, and her son, Jimmy, is nine-years-old. Hagerman has an 11-year-old daughter, Laura, who will enter 6th grade in the fall. Kelly’s daughter, Rose, will start 8th grade in September. Since Rose is a year away from entering Mercy, Kelly stressed the importance of settling any issues with transportation as soon as possible.
“We don’t want to make it a last minute thing. We want to make sure that that bus is set up for them,” Kelly said.
Hagerman said she and her husband both attended Catholic schools, and they want to provide their children with a similar education.
“The reason I choose Our Lady of the Hamptons is because I love that whole school community,” she said. “I will choose Mercy for my daughter for high school because I went there, as well, and I absolutely love the school.”
She noted that when she and other local students attended McGann-Mercy, “we piggybacked on the Montauk school bus. Our parents had to pay half and our church paid the other half. It was kind of a trip on the bus every day to Riverhead, but I got to meet so many people.”
For Gazda, sending her children to parochial schools is part of a family tradition.
“I attended Catholic school and my husband attended Catholic school — not only elementary school, but Catholic high school,” she said. “It’s just what we do.”
Although Kelly did not personally attend Catholic school, she decided before she had children that she wanted to go that route.
“Having that religious background, in my opinion, is very important in raising your children,” said Kelly. “It’s extremely important to my husband and me.”
Mary Ellen Gazda, Rachel Kelly and Tara Hagerman in front of the Bridgehampton School on Sunday. The parents are pushing for the Bridgehampton School to provide busing to McGann-Mercy in Riverhead. Photography by Michael Heller.