Petra and Lance Lieberman of Morristown sweated over transportation for their two children who are enrolled at Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph. They were notified in August that the school couldn’t provide busing for them.
“It was a serious crisis for us,” said Petra in a telephone call with NJJN. She and her husband are teachers. They worked on the logistics of driving their children to school, which would have meant leaving the house before 7 a.m., and even then, they weren’t sure a morning drive would get them to their Morris County jobs on time.
Fortunately, they found out last week that their bus was reinstated. Gottesman narrowly averted a busing crisis two weeks before the start of school on Sept. 4.
“I feel so blessed because we have two buses,” said Naomi Bacharach, director of institutional advancement at Gottesman. “I’m so happy for parents, and there’s such a sense of relief. It was so stressful.”
For three tense weeks in August, administrators and parents scrambled to figure out how children would get to and from school. A few families dependent on busing pulled their children from the school, according to Cheryl Bahar, dean of Gottesman, a 200-student non-denominational school for children in preschool through eighth grade.
These last few weeks of summer Bahar and head of school Moshe Vaknin have undertaken a flurry of phone calls and emails helping parents arrange carpools and investigating the purchase or leasing of their own buses. They urged parents to contact their school district superintendents and state representatives.
Administrators also assembled their own crisis response team, which included Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and N.J. Rep. Anthony Bucco (R-Dist. 25); together they met with Dr. Angelo Vilardi, superintendent of the Educational Services Commission of Morris County. The commission manages busing for all schools in the district.
The crisis came to an end, for this year at least, on Aug. 21 when the school got word that two buses would be provided at a cost of $70,000 over the amount provided by the state. The school will have to pay for the difference.
“I don’t know the reason, but we have busing this year,” said Bacharach. “In my opinion, Bucco really pulled some strings for us.”
But this year’s resolution doesn’t ensure busing for next year.
Transportation is a critical factor in the decision to enroll children in day school. In fact, according to Bahar, it’s one of the first questions parents ask when they look at the school.
Petra called busing problems a “first-world problem,” but said, “We value our kids having a Jewish day school education. It would be really sad to pull it away from our kids.”
Over the last five years, all four area Jewish day schools have had issues with busing serious enough that they’ve enlisted the help of the federation. But none had escalated to the level that Gottesman reached this year.
Rebecca Hindin, director of the federation’s Day School Initiative, is concerned about the danger to day school enrollment posed by busing issues and frustrated by the idea that schools could lose students to issues beyond affordability or academics.
“To lose children because of a transportation issue really is a difficult thing to stomach,” she said. “It just feels wrong. It feels disappointing.”
At Gottesman about 75-80 children from Randolph, Rockaway, and Morristown rely on a bus.
In most cases, according to Bahar, both parents work, so driving children to school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon would have been more than just a hassle. It could have meant more families leaving the school.
“It’s just really a huge hardship” for parents, said Bahar. She said families from outlying areas like Mendham lost their buses a few years ago and the remaining school families carpool or drive their kids.
This year is not the first time Gottesman has had the looming possibility of losing its busing. Each time, the school has eked out a solution by negotiating with the district and with bus companies, giving up door-to-door service in favor of clustered stops one year, and adjusting the hours of the school day another.
During the last week of July, a few days before the Aug. 1 deadline on which schools must be notified, the commission told Gottesman that it would have no buses.
First Student, the bus company that had their routes last year, would only renew the contract at triple the price; no other company even bid on the routes.
One of the reasons for the increased costs is a shortage of drivers over the last few years due to the tightening of regulations and requirements, according to Jeff Reiss, general manager at the school bus company Durham School Services. Reiss, a former teacher and bus coordinator at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, is familiar with the issues facing the area day schools.
By state law, towns that provide busing to public school students who live more than two miles from school must also provide it to non-public school students. If the cost to the district is prohibitive, it may provide, in lieu of busing, $1,000 per eligible student. A critical mass of students in any given town, therefore, is key to making the route desirable and profitable for the bus companies.
The other day schools in the area — JKHA/RKYHS, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth — have a large student base that tends to be concentrated in specific towns. So, there might be about 300 students from West Orange going to JKHA/RKYHS. That means the busing contract is worth $300,000. Because Gottesman is small and students who use the buses are scattered across three towns (Morristown, Randolph, and Rockaway), the routes are neither lucrative nor cost effective, and Gottesman’s bus contracts are in a precarious position, year after year.
After receiving the news from the commission Gottesman was open to negotiating with First Student. The school offered to combine with public school buses or adjust times for drop off and pick up, but after some initial conversations, the company stopped responding to Gottesman’s phone calls, according to Bacharach. First Student did not respond to a request for an interview with NJJN.
Bucco told NJJN he is now considering drafting legislation to change the mandated timeline for coordinating busing. Currently, the district must notify schools and parents by Aug. 1, leaving little time to find alternatives. His legislation would move that date back by several months.
While it’s a green light for Gottesman’s buses this year, administrators fear a full stop in the future. Bacharach said the school is still considering buying or purchasing buses to avert an inevitable crisis next year.
“I don’t think we will have busing ever again,” Bacharach said.
The federation, for its part, is hoping to have a transportation study undertaken to reveal ways the current system could be adjusted to be more effective; it has been pushing Bucco to draft the legislation, and it is convening meetings among all of the day schools focusing on busing.
“We don’t want Gottesman or the others to be in this tight spot every year,” said Hindin.
Petra Lieberman’s family is taking things “one year at a time,” she said. “We have faith in the school. They recognize this is a serious issue.”
Still, she acknowledged that without busing, “We would eventually have to pull our kids.”
Vilardi and director of transportation Frank Romano did not return calls or emails from NJJN.