MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — As the South Orange–Maplewood School District moves into the second year of implementing its Intentional Integration Initiative, parents and guardians are pushing back on the elimination of courtesy busing for the upcoming school year, which begins on Sept. 8. The Board of Education voted in April to eliminate the busing, which would have provided transportation to students who live more than a mile away from their respective school but less than 2 miles. Per state requirements, the district must provide busing to students who live 2 miles or farther from their school.
A petition, located at https://www.change.org/p/school-buses-for-soma-kids, asking the district to restore courtesy busing has garnered more than 1,500 signatures so far, and several residents spoke in favor of restoring courtesy busing at the Aug. 1 BOE meeting. The argument for all students to have busing available to them is that not every family has other transportation options and between 1 and 2 miles is too far and takes too long for students to walk twice a day.
“The district cannot, and must not, assume that every SOMA student is capable of walking up to 60 minutes, twice a day, for the entire school year,” the petition reads, also citing as an issue busy roads, some of which do not have crossing guards. “By failing to provide busing for students living more than 1 mile from school, the district is requiring many young children to risk injury and worse by walking routes that are congested and dangerous. This risk is heightened by SOMA’s often hilly topography and inclement weather.”
The policy could also, according to the petition, negatively affect families who do not have the ability to drive their children to and from school every day due to work schedules, families who have children in different schools, families who do not own a vehicle or families who have after-school caretakers who do not drive.
“The district cannot, and must not, ignore the negative impact of having many more vehicles on our roads during rush-hour,” the petition argues, giving another reason all students should receive bus access. “This includes the compounded environmental impact of more cars and traffic, as well as the safety implications for those who are walking.”
The III intends to better integrate the SOMSD along racial and socioeconomic lines, while also turning every elementary school into a K-5 model and ending the Marshall-Boland configuration that sees kindergarten, first grade and second grade students go to Marshall Elementary School and third, fourth and fifth graders attend Boland Elementary School, formerly Jefferson Elementary School. That phase of the plan has not yet come to fruition; construction on the Long Range Facilities Plan is still in progress.
Beginning its second year, the III is going to streamline which sixth-graders attend Maplewood Middle School or South Orange Middle School based on their proximity to each school. The district will begin to keep entire fifth-grade classes from each elementary school together when they move to middle school, as opposed to, say, students from one elementary school being split among SOMS and MMS. According to an update on the III at a March BOE meeting, transportation was taken into account when making the decision.
In an email to the News-Record on Aug. 22, BOE President Thair Joshua said that about 90 elementary school students will be affected by the change. He said it would change transportation for students who are zoned for Bolden, Marshall and Seth Boyden Elementary School.
“The district’s current transportation policy is until further notice,” Joshua said. “However, the board has committed to reviewing the policy later this year and any changes implemented would likely be for the 2023-24 school year.”
But he added that the BOE is exploring other options to make sure that all families in the district have adequate transportation to their respective schools.
“The BOE is committed to revising the transportation policy in line with community desires and in a fiscally responsible manner,” Joshua said. “We are continuing to explore other pathways to provide additional transportation for the 2022-23 school year while focusing on how to expand transportation in a responsible manner in September 2023 and beyond.”
Joseph Gabriel, whose son will be starting first grade at Marshall when the new school year begins, said at the meeting that while he lives 400 feet away from the school, he wants the families who are not in the same position to have easy transportation each day.
“I speak from a privileged position, but it pains me to know that other families are not so lucky,” Gabriel said at the Aug. 1 BOE meeting. “Implicit in this commitment would be a safe, reasonable way for every working family to send their child to school. If that means going above and beyond the state mandated minimums, then I think we need to find a way to do that. Failing to remedy this issue would be the opposite of a sustainable and innovative approach.”
In response, Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor said the administration understands the concern and will most likely create a district goal to solve it.
“I have empathy for families who see their transportation circumstance as a personal challenge for their family,” Taylor said.
Taylor did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Aug. 23.