Every morning, children pile into a school bus only feet from Geraldine Merola’s doorstep. Not her two children, though; Ms. Merola spends weekday mornings driving them to school, as do six other families who’ve had bus service cut off.
In May, Sag Harbor School District voters approved a proposition to “align district policy with existing practice.” At the time, Ms. Merola, like many others, thought she was she voting to help formalize the district’s policy.
There was one problem. When district officials formalized the policy, they said students had to live at least one mile, as opposed to two, from the school to be entitled to bus service. At the time they thought all the children who already had bus service lived at least one mile away.
On the first day of school, a bus picked up all 13 children waiting for the bus in the Hillside Drive neighborhood off Route 114, where the Merolas live—where the Merolas live, in fact, only 861 feet short of one mile from the flagpole at Pierson High School, from which the minimum distance required for bus service is measured.
By that afternoon, the parents had been informed that their children could no longer take the bus under the district’s transportation policy.
Angry parents attended a Sag Harbor School Board meeting on September 16, demanding answers, and on Monday night the board tried to rectify the problem.
Before Monday’s meeting started, a crowd of about 25 parents and some children waited in the hall outside the school library, eager to hear a decision and argue their case if they had to.
“I haven’t been able to put in a full shift of work for a couple of weeks now,” said an angry Ms. Merola, who said it takes three hours a day to take her elementary and high school children to school and bring them home. “They wanted to wear the ‘C’ [for sports team captain] and be leaders for this school, but if they can’t fix this, they are no leaders.”
Interim Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso tried to nip the tension in the bud, saying right off that the School Board has been meeting with its lawyer to find a legal way around the district’s self-created predicament.
The board wants to address the issue individually with the with the affected families, Dr. Bonuso said.
“We can’t do this in bulk. We want to resolve this issue, so let’s speak individually and see if a resolution can be achieved,” he said. Dr. Bonuso said the district can re-measure the distance to each house and evaluate before or after school child-care arrangements, such as if a child stays at a friend or relative’s house down the block after school—which might happen to be more than a mile away.
But some of the parents weren’t pleased.
One audience member, without standing at the podium, said she felt she was misled when she voted for last May’s proposition.
School Board member Sandra Kruel answered the statement, saying, “It was a bookkeeping thing, we were cleaning an oversight up. When I said yes to a mile distance, I had no idea it would cut anybody off. But, we’re confident we can fix this.”
Ms. Merola stepped up to the podium, half asking and half stating, “We really believed that [the vote] was just codifying what was already happening. Were there any positive results from this resolution? Did we fix something that wasn’t broken? First and foremost you should be doing no harm.”
Dr. Bonuso answered Ms. Merola, starting one of the few light-hearted exchanges of the night.
“We couldn’t have given anyone under two miles bus service if we did not pass the referendum,” Dr. Bonuso said. “Now, many more people are receiving bus service, so yes, there was good done. We did this to help more people. FYI, if the proposition did not pass, it wouldn’t have helped anyone here.”
Ms. Merola replied, “But there would be more people in this room with us.”
“If by that you mean more people will feel abused, then I guess so,” Dr. Bonuso joked. “We’re going through obstacles and hoops to make this OK.”
Some parents even asked about declaring Route 114 a “child safety zone,” a technical term declared by the town superintendent of highways, which would automatically qualify the neighborhood for bus service, regardless of distance.
The school attorney, Tom Volz, warned that in prior cases attempting to declare a child safety zone, even crossing Sunrise Highway didn’t even satisfy the requirements for the declaration.
“We are looking at other options,” said board member Daniel Hartnett, who noted that in the board’s opinion, the families would fall short of qualifying and they wouldn’t get a favorable outcome.
In the end, while some parents were still left confused by the vague commitment to a resolution, the board was hinting at a positive outcome one way or another for the families affected.
“We are bound to certain parameters and we are going to have a universal application of the guidelines,” said Dr. Bonuso, before again stressing that the best way to address the issue would be on an individual basis.
“But we are trying to find a legal, expeditious and reasonable solution to get busing to you guys,” said board member David Diskin. “There is latitude in how we measure, so please, get in touch with Dr. Bonuso to help us rectify this.”
Board president Theresa Samot said, “The goal of this board is to make this happen. Be assured we want to fix this,” to which another board member, Mary Anne Miller, added, “We do owe the families and community a great apology, we weren’t trying to disenfranchise anyone. This is not what anyone intended.”