When her youngest child, Reese, started school last month, Kim Smith thought she could return to work, something she’s had to take a break from in recent years to care for her three children.
But Ms. Smith’s plans were derailed when the busing district for the East Quogue Elementary School was changed to exclude homes that are less than a mile from the Central Avenue School, as opposed to those located less than a half-mile from the school, the previous limit. The change was put to a vote and approved by residents as part of the school district’s budgetary vote earlier this year.
Although her home on Louis Street is just a few blocks from the rear entrance to school, Ms. Smith, who previously worked as a nurse at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, said the walk is unsafe for Reese, who recently turned 5 and suffers from asthma, as well as a kidney disorder that causes urinary urgency and makes walking taxing. Prior to the change, the Smith home was outside the half-mile limit as calculated by road from the front of the school.
“There is no way that kindergarten kids should be walking alone anywhere,” she said. “No matter where they live.”
Ms. Smith, whose husband works in New York City and is unable to pick up their children either before or after school, left her nursing job two years ago after Reese underwent surgery to treat his hydronephrosis, a condition that restricts urine flow from the kidneys and can cause kidney failure.
“Any kindergarten kid should not be walking to school whether they have kidney problems, or asthma, or nothing at all,” she said. “It’s not me being a lazy mom or not having help—it’s about the safety of all these kids.”
Ms. Smith and other parents whose children attend East Quogue Elementary School say the language on the June 18 ballot that cut two buses, eliminating transportation for about 100 students—a move projected to save the district $57,000 this school year—was unclear. School district taxpayers had to vote on the proposition, in addition to the revised $22.4 million budget, after East Quogue’s original budget of about $23 million was rejected last May. Board of Education members added the busing proposition as part of $600,000 in proposed cuts to get the 2013-14 spending plan under the state-mandated tax cap. Residents approved the revised budget by a vote of 698-261, and the proposition passed by a vote of 708-251.
Ms. Smith and others, however, say they did not realize the busing cuts also applied to kindergarten pupils. One parent, Steve Dorn, said during last month’s Board of Education meeting that he voted for the change in bus routes but was unaware of what he was voting for, saying he didn’t realize the routes would be changed.
“We were told to vote ‘yes’ for the budget to pass,” he said. “I thought we were supposed to vote ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’” he added, referring to the budget and the only proposition on the June ballot.
According to the proposition’s language, a yes vote confirms that: “the East Quogue Union Free School District modify its school transportation minimum eligibility requirements, effective July 1, 2013, from the existing distance minimum between home to school of a half (1/2) mile, to a new minimum of one (1) mile; thereby reducing the proposed 2013-14 school district budget in the approximate amount of $57,000.”
The June 18 vote was the district’s second attempt to pass its 2013-14 budget after its first proposal—which would have increased the tax levy by 5.2 percent, piercing the state cap of 2.6 percent—failed to get the necessary 60 percent of the vote to pass. The cut in busing was introduced as part the school board’s plan to reduce spending to stay within the allowable increase range.
School Superintendent Les Black said he sympathizes with the parents affected by the busing cutbacks, but explained that they were crucial to getting this year’s budget under the tax cap. If the budget had failed a second time, district officials would have been forced, under the new state guidelines, to adopt a spending plan that does not increase the tax levy—a situation that would have forced the school to slash programs and positions.
Mr. Black also said that the only way to revert to the old busing system would be through a costly referendum. “My anticipation is that nothing will be done until the budget vote in the spring,” he said, adding that “the community did speak rather clearly on the issue of transportation.”
The move was one of several cost-cutting measures the board included in its second proposed budget that included eliminating a full-time special education teacher, four teacher assistant positions, three teacher aides, a custodian, a part-time speech teacher, a part-time psychologist and reducing the hours of the district’s technology specialist. Additional cuts and layoffs would have been necessary had the revised budget also been shot down by voters.
But Ms. Smith said she would rather the school reduce its staff than cut busing for kindergarteners, which she said puts the young students at risk. “I’d rather see a teacher get laid off than have the safety of kids be put in jeopardy,” she said.
Additionally, Ms. Smith has submitted documentation of her youngest son’s medical conditions to the Board of Education, along with a doctor’s note, requesting that he be provided busing, but her request was denied. Mr. Black said accommodations can be made for children with documented illnesses and disabilities, but that process must be determined through a hearing under Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires schools to fulfill the needs of children with disabilities. Ms. Smith said she is the process of seeking relief.
Although the walk is physically challenging for her youngest child, Ms. Smith said it is also taking its toll on her other children as well. She said she feels comfortable allowing her 11-year-old son, Christopher, and 7-year-old daughter, Malone, to walk to school together, but the additional responsibility of having to safeguard Reese on the walk to and from school has caused Christopher significant amounts of stress.
Additionally, Ms. Smith noted that she is concerned about the presence of a Level 2 sex offender who lives near the school; the district notified parents via a letter dated August 21 that an offender was now living in the community. The letter did not name the offender, or list a home address, but cautioned parents and students to be “alert and careful.” Websites that track such offenders say that three are currently residing in East Quogue—on Montauk Highway, and on Clinton and Ocean avenues.
Mr. Black said this week that special busing is being provided to those students who live near the offender in question or must walk past his home on their way to school.
Other parents, such as Michele Bertorello, are frustrated that buses pass their house on a daily basis and are unable to stop to pick up their children. Ms. Bertorello, who lives right on the edge of the busing cutoff, said she does not understand why her neighbor’s child can be bused while her 9-year-old son, Jake, is expected to walk, something she said she doesn’t feel comfortable allowing.
“I guess, like everyone else in the community, I’m very frustrated that our [first] budget vote did not pass, but at the same time I feel that with all the taxes I pay to live in [East Quogue], I do not understand why our school district never seems to have enough money,” she wrote in an email. “I also have a feeling that this same situation will be put in place next year.”
Mr. Black said the budget proposition clearly laid out its implications, noting that the issue was discussed multiple times during public hearings about the budget and during Board of Education meetings. He added that the reduction in services, which can be reversed only through another referendum, should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
But Ms. Smith and others think the board members tricked her and other parents into voting against their children’s best interests, and she wants them to either hold another referendum this year and, if that is not possible, schedule a vote for next May when the next school budget goes before taxpayers.
“I absolutely want to go forward and fight,” she said, “because it’s too far and too dangerous for kindergarten kids to be walking. I think kindergarten through third grade should be bused, because those young kids can’t do anything to protect themselves.”
Carolyn Terry, who served as president of the East Quogue Elementary Parent Teacher Association last year, said she was involved in getting information out to parents about both budget proposals. She noted that while the PTA and school did significant outreach, it is up to each parent to educate themselves on the district issues.
“It’s really important for people to come to board meetings,” Ms. Terry said.