By Amanda Wyatt
A campaign led by three mothers to obtain transportation for their children to Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead from the Bridgehampton School District appears to be gaining momentum.
For the past nine months, Bridgehampton residents Rachel Kelly, Tara Hagerman and Mary Ellen Gazda have sought to persuade the board of education to provide busing to McGann-Mercy High School, the closest Catholic high school to the South Fork.
Currently, the district is bound by law to bus students to private schools anywhere within a 15-mile radius of the Bridgehampton school district. But since McGann-Mercy is located six miles beyond that radius, the district cannot transport students there — unless the voting public chooses to extend the limit.
At last Wednesday’s board meeting, the three mothers delivered a petition — signed by over 106 district residents — requesting the board to initiate a proposition on the May ballot to extend the limit from 15 to 25 miles.
“Please help our children get the Catholic education they deserve and have worked so hard for,” Kelly said at the meeting.
While the board did not make an official decision, some members seemed inclined to move quickly on the matter and asked board attorney Tom Volz what their next step would be.
“If the board is inclined to put a proposition before the voters, it would act to do so and it would go on the [legal] notice that calls your May election to order,” said Volz, noting the advertisement would have to go out 45 days prior to the vote.
He recommended the board put together the legal notice for the election, including any proposition it may make on busing, for approval at its February 27 meeting.
For Kelly, obtaining transportation to McGann-Mercy is a particularly pressing concern; her daughter, Rose, is about to graduate from Our Lady of the Hamptons (OLH) in Southampton, which provides education from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Hagerman — who attended McGann-Mercy herself — has a daughter, Laura, who is in sixth grade at OLH.
“I love Our Lady of the Hamptons and I love Mercy. I just feel like [Laura] gets a great education for her mind and soul,” she said in an interview.
Gazda’s two children — Margaret, age 12, and Jimmy, age nine — attend OLH, as well. Growing up in North Haven, Gazda and her siblings attended Catholic schools. She remembered her older brother, who just turned 60, would have to hitch a ride with a friend to Hampton Bays every day just to catch the bus to McGann-Mercy.
“I think my mom had such an ordeal with trying to get him to the Catholic high school that the rest of us just went to Pierson,” she said.
All three mothers noted that they had received overwhelming support from their relatives, friends, fellow churchgoers and acquaintances, some of whom had encountered similar problems when trying to attend McGann-Mercy.
“They all knew where we were coming from,” said Hagerman. “They were sympathetic and were very happy to sign the petition.”
“It is something that we’re hoping the taxpayers understand and vote for, because this area needs this transportation,” said Kelly.
She pointed out that the issue at hand was not necessarily a religious one.
“We live in such a unique area…This is about living in a community that has one road going in and one road going out, and not many choices out here. It’s about choice. It has nothing to do [with] religion…It’s about the children in the district,” she said.
Kelly added, “We pay our taxes to this school and we don’t ask anything from it.”
At the same time, the request for busing comes just as Bridgehampton School is looking into ways of “whittling down” the budget.
When asked in an interview how a bus to McGann-Mercy would affect the budget, Nicki Hemby, board of education president, said: “Budget time is never an easy one for anyone, and with our tax cap of two percent and our recent reduction of state aid of $50,000, our administration is constantly looking at ways to be creative with funds. Every expense at this point is a strain on the budget.”
Still, “it is taxpayers’ money, so the taxpayers will decide if they would like to take this cost on. Then it is our job as a board [to] figure out how to make it work,” she said.
But as Hagerman noted, even if they are unsuccessful this time around, “we are not going to give up.”
Gazda agreed: “For us, another school just isn’t an option, so that’s why we’re working together to try to figure this out. No matter what, our kids are going to Mercy for high school.”