By Tessa Raebeck
Despite riding the morning bus on their first day of school on September 9, a handful of Sag Harbor students found themselves stranded with no ride home that very same afternoon.
“I don’t want to feel like someone put one over on us, but it’s hard not to feel that way,” said Geraldine Merola, one of many upset parents who attended Monday’s Sag Harbor School Board of Education meeting.
A resident of the Hillside Drive neighborhood that borders Route 114, Merola’s children are no longer permitted to ride the very bus they have taken to Sag Harbor Elementary School for years.
The Merolas and other affected families live within one mile of the school. New York State law provides that for elementary school students, bus service must be provided to families who live further than two miles from a school. For older students, transportation is required for those further than three miles.
According to the school board, which met with school district attorney Tom Volz for legal counsel regarding the matter in executive session prior to Monday’s meeting and again Tuesday night, because the public voted in a referendum last May to provide transportation to families living between one and 15 miles from the school, it is illegal to transport anyone residing within one mile.
Parents expressed confusion because in previous years and until last Monday morning, those families were indeed provided transportation. They had traditionally received bus service due to administrative oversight, according to the board. After reviewing the routes following the referendum last May, the transportation office realized that those families living within one mile from the school did not in fact qualify for bus service.
“We were not following the law before,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the school board. “It’s insane. New York State has many laws that make no sense, but we’re required to follow them.”
According to the district’s business administrator John O’Keefe, a total of six families have been impacted by the decision to roll back this service.
The transportation office notified families that were on the bus routes — those living between one and 15 miles from the school — of the changes in enforcement last May, but failed to notify the families that were actually affected by those changes, according to Dr. Carl Bonuso, the district’s interim superintendent.
“The error could have occurred in that they did not call the few families that were not receiving the bus that had been receiving the bus in the past,” said Dr. Bonuso on Tuesday. “I would have preferred if they had directly called immediately literally at the beginning of the summer as soon as they had the bus routes figured out.”
Instead, students were picked up on the first day of school with no notification to their parents that they would need to find alternate transportation home.
“The fact that they waited till midday Monday afternoon to actually notify us,” said Merola on Monday night. “That’s inexcusable, it’s just completely inexcusable.”
“You are absolutely right,” replied Dr. Bonuso. “The notice was very late, too late. It was poorly done. That’s our mistake and I take full responsibility… The bottom line is we did say, again, our interpretation, our reading was that we were going to literally obey that one mile limit that in fact we thought was being enforced for so many years.”
“What I imagine happened,” Dr. Bonuso said Tuesday of the reason the families had received transportation in the past, “was that at a given point, not realizing that they did not have that flexibility, I think people might have been picked up because they felt they are along the bus route anyway. It’s a busy road and they were trying to be kind and gracious about it.”
The families impacted by the changes predominantly live in neighborhoods where the only direct route to school goes along Route 114.
“I can’t put a six-year-old on 114,” Merola told the board. “Safety on 114 is a huge concern. I don’t think any of you would let your children walk to school on that road and if you did you’d be condemned as an irresponsible parent.”
The board expressed its desire to remedy the situation and find a way to provide bus service to the affected families as soon as possible.
Three possible solutions were discussed at Monday’s board meeting: reviewing the measurements to adjust where the distance is determined (i.e. from the school’s front door or back door) which could be a big enough change to include those families within one mile, although that would have the potential to eliminate families on the other side of town; putting another proposition up for public vote that provides for transportation within the one mile radius; and having the area along Route 114 declared a child safety zone, a process that would ultimately permit all of the area’s children to ride the bus regardless of their home’s distance from the school.
“We’ve been providing bus service for 20 years,” said Merola. “Another six months isn’t going to kill us and it is safer.”
“I think your reaction, certainly it’s my reaction,” replied David Diskin, a member of the board. “I think many of the board members feel the same way that it’s outrageous. The notice — it just wasn’t handled properly.”
“It’s an error in notification,” agreed Dr. Bonuso. “Unfortunately, it’s not an error in terms of distance. Actually, an error has been corrected.”
Theresa Samot, president of the school board, said Wednesday that the board is exploring all legal options and working on a plan to again provide transportation to the impacted families.
“We certainly want to rectify this as soon as possible,” she said. “All of the board members feel terrible that this issue happened.”
Samot said that the board expects to have a legal solution by Friday and will be holding a special open meeting Monday evening at 5:45 p.m. to discuss the final recommendations with the community.