Dozens of parents protested cuts that will leave hundreds of city students attending the Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI) without busing next school year on Wednesday night.
Parents pointed to the many safety challenges students will face if forced to walk to the vocational school in Wayne. “There are no sidewalks on Preakness Avenue, Hamburg Turnpike, or Oldham Road,” said Sailys Cabral, whose twin daughters attend the high school. It will be particularly dangerous for students in the fall and winter when it gets darker earlier, she said. “Have any one of you walked that road? There is no proper lighting.”
690 students – 491 of them attending Passaic County Tech — will be without busing next school year as a result of the district’s elimination of its courtesy busing program to save $930,000. These students live within 2.5-mile of the high school. State law requires the district to provide busing to high school students who reside beyond 2.5 miles.
“Is that worth the life of a child?” Cabral told school board members. She found fault with describing the program as courtesy busing. “This isn’t courtesy busing. It’s dangerous to walk those roads.”
Students from Paterson may have to walk through winding roads up a steep slope to get to the high school. Some parents pointed out there’s a heavy volume of truck traffic on both roadways leading to the high school from the nearby quarry.
“I’ve seen children get hit. I had to help a child that was struck by a car on a street not as precarious as the streets they are going to be walking up towards,” said Robert Scott, a former Paterson emergency medical technician, whose son attends the high school.
Kathy Muhammad, whose daughter is a freshman at the high school, said many members of her family graduated from the vocational school over the past decades. “We work hard. We want to see our children excel. Never did I think I’d get that letter in the mail. After all these years, our children’s safety will be in jeopardy over a busing issue,” she said. “There’s nowhere for them to walk going up or down that hill. I don’t know if you understand the ramifications.”
Muhammad said students will also have to see their friends, who live 2.5 miles or further away, being transported via bus while they walk to the high school during rain and snow. “It really needs to be rethought,” said Muhammad.
School board members apologized to the fifty parents who protested at Wednesday’s workshop meeting at the district headquarters. However, there was little indication the district intended to restore the busing program.
“This board was forced to make a horrible decision,” said school board president Christopher Irving. He said the cuts resulted from the state’s chronic underfunding of the school district. The district does not have the funds to provide courtesy busing, he said.
“If we had it, I swear we’d damn sure do it. That’s not easy money to find,” said Irving. The district had to close an almost $42 million budget gap this year that included cutting almost 100 teachers.
“We’re sharing nurses between schools. We’re cutting security staff,” said board member Jonathan Hodges pointing to the district’s poor fiscal state.
Irving noted the district has provided busing for the past 20 years. He said no other district that sends students to PCTI provides courtesy busing.
Parents expressed frustration the district did not disclose the impact of eliminating courtesy busing at budget meetings. District officials said courtesy busing would be eliminated during the budget meetings; however, the number of students that would be impacted was not disclosed during meetings held earlier in the year.
“The impact of the elimination of courtesy busing was not fully disclosed at the budget meetings,” said Carrie Gonzalez, who organized the protest against the cuts. Her daughter is a junior at the high school.
School board member Manny Martinez said the district should have done a better job conveying information to parents.
Cabral said parents should have been offered options. She said some parents are willing to cover busing expenses for their students and hold fundraisers to collect money for the program.
School board members suggested the Passaic County Tech consider providing busing to the impacted students. Irving said the vocational school has a surplus and can better afford to take on the busing expenses.
“They had money left over in the budget,” said Irving. School board member Flavio Rivera said both the high school and the district should have discussions to find a resolution to the issue. If the 491 students return to district schools, Passaic County Tech stands to lose millions of dollars, noted board members.
Gonzalez said ending courtesy busing appeared to be a ploy to do just that. She said the district is imposing hardship on students and their families to force them back to the district to produce savings.
“You are not offering them anything, but fights at the school,” said Gonzalez.
School board members also complained about the letter the high school sent to parents urging them to attend the board meeting to protest. School board members told parents to attend the next Passaic County Tech board meeting on June 22nd, 2017 at 3:30 p.m. to express their concerns about the issue.
Board members volunteered to attend the meetings themselves.
Gonzalez said she and other parents may have to consider filing a lawsuit against the district over the issue.
Correction (6/9/2017): A previous version of this report misattributed a quote to a parent — Cathleen Hames — when the utterance was made by another parent — Kathy Muhammad.