West Orange School District restores courtesy/hazard busing

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District announced in a letter to district families on May 20 that it has restored courtesy/hazard busing, reversing a decision that was made in the passing of the 2021-2022 school year budget that would have eliminated it for students who live closer than 2 miles from school. According to the letter from Superintendent Scott Cascone, the district will be using $500,000 from fund balance, which is unspent revenue from the previous year, to make up the cost. The district is allowed to maintain a fund balance of up to 2 percent of the expenditures.

“This was an example of, we didn’t receive the feedback that we would have received to change it sooner,” Cascone said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on May 24. “So when we were presented with that feedback, it became a real nonnegotiable rather than a perceived nonnegotiable. It raises a lot of questions that don’t have good answers or solutions.”

The surplus would have been moved into reserve accounts for capital, maintenance and emergency reserve for unforeseen expenditures that weren’t budgeted for. According to Cascone, the district has historically not been able to maintain those reserve accounts. The administration and Board of Education wanted to fix this inability to maintain those accounts gradually over the next several years, but will now delay the plan for at least another year.

“The administration and board were operating with the best of intentions to maintain the full programmatic landscape of the district. Certainly, moving into next year, receiving students in need of academic reinforcement and acceleration, as well as social-emotional support, and the benefits of the holistic services which the district offers, led us to place a strong priority on maintaining these necessary supports,” the letter said about the decision to eliminate courtesy busing in the first place. “Further, as also explained previously, there was a need to enhance and augment our existing staff to meet the aforementioned needs. Over the course of the days between the preliminary budget and the final budget, the board and administration received extensive feedback and advocacy relative to the staff positions proposed for cut. As the community is aware, many of these positions were reinstated.”

In the short-term, the busing will be paid for out of the fund balance. Cascone told the Chronicle that over the summer the district will consider other options that could help in future budgets, such as requesting new bids from busing companies and considering changing insurance companies. They are going into that process knowing what is important to the community.

“It illuminates what are the top priorities of the community, and how does that help in the budget process,” Cascone said. “We’ll engage the community early and often so we can avoid this.”

In the letter, he said the district will make efforts to maintain the busing moving forward and will work with township officials.

“The administration and board will continue to make every effort to actively engage all of our constituents early and often in the budget process. By doing this, we ensure that we are privy to the greatest amount of feedback as early in the process as possible,” Cascone said. “While this does not guarantee that the decisions that the administration and board ultimately make relative to the budget will be unanimously supported, it helps to ensure that we have all relevant and salient information and perspectives to help inform those decisions. I’m hopeful that we have demonstrated ourselves to be as responsive as possible to the feedback from our constituents.”