By Amanda Wyatt
After nearly 10 months of discussion at school board meetings, the decision of whether or not to provide a bus for students from Bridgehampton School District attending Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead now rests in the hands of taxpayers.
Last spring, Bridgehampton residents Rachel Kelly, Mary Ellen Gazda and Tara Hagerman first approached the board of education (BOE) with a request to provide transportation for their children to Mercy.
However, the three mothers — all of whom currently send their children to Our Lady of the Hamptons, a K-8 school in Southampton — hit a roadblock when they learned the district can only transport students to private schools within a 15 mile radius. McGann-Mercy, the closest Catholic high school to the South Fork, is located six miles over that limit.
In late January, the mothers submitted a petition — which contained over 100 signatures — asking the board to put a proposition on their May budget ballot to extend the busing limit from 15 to 25 miles. Last Wednesday, the BOE approved this proposition, placing the decision in the hands of voters.
“It’s going to be a taxpayers’ decision. It’s really going to come down to a vote and the decision on what they feel more comfortable with,” said Nicki Hemby, school board president, in an interview on Friday.
If taxpayers vote in favor of the proposition, busing from Bridgehampton to Riverhead would begin during the 2013-2014 school year.
At this point, there are three students living in the district who would be bused to Mercy next fall, said Hemby. However, she noted this number could conceivably change in the coming months.
“Now with that being said, we will go with the most fiscally responsible and the safest option to get the kids bused in the event that the taxpayers decide that’s the way that they want to go,” Hemby said.
Robert Hauser, Bridgehampton’s business administrator, said at the last BOE meeting that the school had been researching the cost of providing busing to McGann-Mercy. Ultimately, the school could contract with McCoy Busing, which would cost $62,000 annually; Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which would cost $60,525; or Hometown Taxi, which would cost $14,475.
Both McCoy and Hometown Taxi will have to respond to request for proposals (RFPs), legal ads that are placed in local newspapers, in order to be considered. The RFP will likely go out later this month, and then the school can begin the process of evaluating the proposals.
At the same meeting, Kelly and Gazda were asked by the school board how they felt about sending their children to school in a taxi.
“We’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about them,” said Gazda. “Everybody that uses them raves about them.”
Kelly said that McGann-Mercy had been using taxis to shuttle students to the school from other districts for the past four years and “had never had a complaint.”
“A lot of school districts around the country are using taxi services for similar situations, where small groups of children are either going to special services or to parochial schools,” she said.
Kelly pointed out that taxis could charge per student, unlike bus companies, which charge per route regardless of the number of kids being transported.
“You have to get beyond the taxi stigma. It’s more like a shuttle,” added Gazda.
Still, Hemby said, student safety is her top priority.
“As far as Hometown is concerned, they definitely have requirements and stipulations that they have to meet in order to make that happen, so I just want to make sure that the kids get bused safely,” she said. “That’s my main concern. I don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy over finances.”
In related news, Bridgehampton School will host a special community forum on the subject of creating the 2013-2014 budget on Wednesday, March 13 at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium.
Currently, the school is in the middle of the lengthy process of developing its budget for next school year. The purpose of the scheduled “community conversation” is to provide participants with an overview of next year’s budget, explain tax levy limits and provide the audience with an opportunity to collaborate on creating solutions to fiscal issues.