Five community members are running for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education this year.
The candidates are: Regina Eckert, Nubia Wilson, Bill Gifford, Ritu Pancholy and William Meyer.
Eckert, Wilson and Gifford are running on the “Students Come First” ticket. Pancholy and Meyer are running on the “Doing Better, Together” ticket.
As the Candidate Forums are taking place late in the election cycle (especially given early voting and vote-by-mail), Village Green put together four questions for candidates on different topics of interest in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. We know there can often be numerous questionnaires during the election cycle, but we hope these questions will provide voters with additional information on candidates, well before Election Day.
We asked each of the five candidates to respond individually to each question. We asked them to limit each answer to 500 words or less. We are publishing each response in full and unedited.
The first question is about busing and transportation.
Read all of Village Green’s election coverage here.
The elimination of “courtesy busing” as part of the Intentional Integration Plan has led to a spirited discussion in the community. Do you believe the board should work with the towns on a plan to restore eliminated busing in the district? What solutions would you offer to provide safe and equitable transportation (by bus, car or on foot) for all students across the district? How soon do you think those solutions could be in place? How would they be paid for? See our coverage of the busing discussion here.
Yes, I believe the Board should work with the towns to restore eliminated busing as a near term solution. I sincerely appreciate the Board of Estimates being so responsive and plausibly providing a stop gap to this problem. Frankly, this situation was completely avoidable. The community was not genuinely engaged in the decision and no real explanation provided as to why busing was cut in the first place. Furthermore, I view the current Board’s decision to outsource the district’s transportation department, which fired bus drivers and sold our buses as a complete betrayal of the spirit of the Intentional Integration Initiative (III); our buses were the heartbeat of III.
With that said, I do not view subscription busing as a solution and should be considered an absolute last resort. To have families pay for busing services would serve as a double tax on already struggling households. In the long term, the district needs to find funds to provide inhouse transportation. If budgetary concerns are justification for not doing so, we propose a forensic audit so the community can clearly understand where our tax dollars are going.
I have been speaking with many parents in person, over email and on social media about the elimination of courtesy buses. The personal accounts are eye opening to the various family homelife situations that can negatively impact how a child who lives shy of 2 miles from school can get to school efficiently and safely without a bus. Many parents are stressed. I do believe that the Board should re-evaluate hazardous routes and its transportation policies with respect to hardships in policy 8600.
I do not think passing the financial burden on to families through subscription bussing is the answer–especially since those parents were not given the opportunity to say which schools accommodated their lifestyle needs in the first place. I commend the BOE for engaging in budget talks with the South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate to potentially restore transportation for the 2023-2024 school year. In addition, outsourcing our buses has created a lack of control and ongoing dependency issues, such as extreme delays and dropping special needs children off too far from home (versus door-to-door service). If any parent has had an unfortunate transportation situation, please fill out our Community Survey to provide anonymous feedback–we want to hear your stories.
While I commend the BOE and Board of School Estimates for meeting to discuss transportation options for the 2023-24 school year, I am disappointed that these discussions did not occur before changing the policy and that there doesn’t seem to be any indication that there are any potential solutions for the current school year.
I believe integration is long overdue and absolutely necessary for our students and the greater community, when done right, and transportation is a key component in the overarching effort of integration. If elected, I will immediately support changes to the transportation policy for those in hardship and those who are closest to 2.0 miles. If you look at the Berkeley plan, which ours appears to be based on, they provide a bus to all elementary children 1.5 miles from home. In all of the times I’ve been watching Board meetings, I have not seen a utilization report or cost comparison report presented for discussion openly regarding this plan. From what I’ve been hearing from the community, they are seeing a lot of the buses at half capacity and it seems to me there’s an opportunity to help fill those empty seats. I would start with reevaluating hazardous routes, which is in fact a Board responsibility. If new hazardous routes are determined, this could be a starting point to filling some of the empty seats on buses.
I don’t believe that we, the taxpayers, should be expected to fork over more money without first gaining transparency into how the district’s budget was managed. $1.5 Million was added to the transportation budget in consideration of the III in the 2022 budget open meeting, yet transportation was cut back as of recently. We need an audit before we can reasonably ask the community to pay any more in taxes than we already do. Another solution that has been discussed is subscription bussing however I cannot support that either. It would produce situations of unequal treatment – a family could be paying hundreds or up to $1000 per student per year because of the number they were assigned.
Ritu and I have heard the concerns from many in the community regarding struggles getting kids to school. This is an issue that has especially impacted those families whose courtesy transportation ended this year on short notice, and has highlighted a struggle that has existed for years, as that program was not available to many students in the 1-2 mile range, long leaving those parents to their own devices. I support the efforts underway by the district to comprehensively increase transportation. This must be done in an equitable and fiscally responsible manner.
The board tasked the district with creating a plan for a significant increase in transportation to support the Intentional Integration Initiative, which is expected to be presented on March 31, 2023. The big question will be how we pay for it.
The three options available are: 1) find money in our budget by cutting existing expenditures, 2) increase our property taxes, or 3) pass costs along directly to families through a subscription model. None of these are easy or painless proposals.
Despite the high taxes we pay toward our schools, our budget is tight due to our small commercial tax base and our meager state aid. Our school budget rests largely on our own backs, and it is stretched thin already, especially after our overdue pay increase to teachers.
Raising taxes is the “easy” way to pay for increased transportation. But upping our already substantial property tax burden must be balanced against the impact on our towns’ cost of living, which increases pressure on all families. And we must be cognizant of our district’s many programs in need of more funds. Committing to any new recurring expenditure through a tax increase now will impact our budget for years to come, and limit our ability to expand other worthy instructional programs.
Subscription busing would be a welcome model for many families and would limit the budgetary impact on the district, but should only be offered in a manner that is equitable and reasonable, especially on middle income and working class families.
I look forward to reviewing the district’s proposal, and as a board member I will advocate for a thoughtful and balanced plan that accommodates families while ensuring we don’t sacrifice educational services, place undue burdens on our taxpayers, or do anything to impede our critical work to integrate our schools.
I also welcome a holistic approach to managing getting kids to school. Part of the concern parents have raised is dropoff and pickup times. I support the district taking steps with our contractual partners to increase the availability of additional before- and after-care options for our students to ease this pressure.
Lastly, I have heard many concerns by parents regarding hazardous walking routes, as well as safety of dropoff spaces around our schools. These are serious concerns that require the assistance of our town governments to address. I support ongoing discussions between the board, district, and towns to make travel to school safer for all our students.
I empathize with the families and students in our town who have been impacted by recurring and new transportation issues. My running mate Will Meyer and I have heard concerns related to delayed notification of bus routes, concern about bus arrival timings, and students placed on the wrong bus. Many of these experiences happen to our most vulnerable children who may have special needs.
We also heard from families impacted by the elimination of their courtesy busing on short notice. This has highlighted the inequity of the former courtesy busing policy as well as brought an overall focus on student transportation issues in our broader community. I support the current Board’s goal to review the district’s transportation policy and examine the options for increased transportation for our students. This review is necessary to ensure that transportation is provided to families and students in an equitable and fiscally responsible manner. We also need to change the way in which we respond to families’ concerns about transportation in our district by adopting a customer focused experience.
The board is currently tasked with examining how to create a plan (by March 31, 2023) for increasing transportation that supports our Intentional Integration Initiative. Although approximately sixty percent of our local property taxes are dedicated to our schools, historically our budget has been constrained by the fact that we do not have a large commercial tax base and our state aid is limited. It is difficult for our community to continue to shoulder the increasing tax burden in our community. I look forward to learning from the Thursday (Oct, 6th) Board of School Estimate meeting the different options the district may consider including: (1) cutting expenditures in the future to cover the increased cost of transportation; (2) increasing our property taxes over the cap to cover the cost of increased transportation; or (3) considering a subscription model that allows for families who need transportation to opt into the service. There are no easy solutions and I anticipate that the Board will have to reach a compromise that equitably serves our students.
At the same time I believe we must ask more from our towns’ elected leaders in terms of addressing our increasing traffic and pedestrian safety issues, because these issues impact our students’ ability to safely walk or bike to and from school. For example, we need to ask our towns to fund and increase the presence of crossing guards at congested throughways throughout our district. We should also ask for more creativity around how to increase the efficiency around drop off and pick up at each of our schools by working together with our elected leaders at the town level and at the police level to create traffic patterns that are safe for all. Everyone in the community should be working together to address pedestrian safety, especially as it relates to student safety.