Monday, February 17, 2020

It’s a story that keeps repeating itself. The Teaneck Board of Education, intent on cutting costs outside the classroom, continues to try to consolidate, reorganize or remove bus routes from students who live in the township who attend private schools. Because of Teaneck’s vibrant population of observant Jewish, Muslim and Catholic families, approximately 45 percent of Teaneck’s resident students attend private schools.

The only benefit many of these families glean from the school district they support as taxpayers? Busing to and from school.

On a semi-annual basis, the Board of Education attempts to claw away busing from various resident populations. This is the second year in a row that students who attend Bruriah High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, have been targeted. This time, the district’s school business administrator, Melissa Simmons, sent letters of disqualification to half of all the students from Teaneck attending Bruriah and all of the students attending JEC, then announced they failed to get any bids for a bus to transport the remaining “eligible” 17 students, thus denying busing to every Teaneck resident who attends Bruriah.

“If the district was able to secure a bid at the state mandated per-pupil cost, all Bruriah students could have been transported, regardless of the 20-mile limit,” wrote Board of Education-appointed attorney R. Scott Eveland, Esq., from the law firm of Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala & Taylor, LLC.

With only 17 students qualified, however, the cost of the bus easily surpassed the per-pupil limit of $1,000. Last year, the contract renewal rate for the bus was $37,981.05, so this year, with only 17 students qualified for busing, the price per student would have been $2,234.17. Those students who live within the school district’s new definition of under 20 miles reportedly will receive a stipend in lieu of busing, Simmons wrote.

Last summer, Bruriah busing was on the chopping block as well, but it was reinstated after a large outcry from parents.

None of the students who were disqualified had moved their homes from previous years, and some were disqualified for allegedly living approximately 200 feet past 20 miles, according to the school board’s calculations. Independent verification with Google Maps indicated that these students all lived between 18.57 and 19.19 miles from Bruriah.

“I’ve had my four daughters going to Bruriah for over 20 years from the same address. We never had a problem until recently,” Teaneck resident Dov Feman told The Jewish Link.

“The reason we could not provide transportation for all the students is based upon the fact that the district was unable to renew the existing contract due to it exceeding the per-student maximum cost. Subsequently, the district received no responses when the route was put out for bid. Therefore, the district could not provide transportation for any Bruriah students and only those students within the 20-mile radius can qualify for aid in lieu of transportation,” wrote Eveland.

Robert Tolchin, Esq., of the Berkman Law Office, LLC, has been retained as an attorney for the parents, who charged that the Board of Education bidding process was innately unfair and intentionally designed to eliminate the route. He also represented the parents in a related matter last summer. “Teaneck included too few students on the proposed bus route, because Teaneck first stripped away all the families who supposedly live more than 20 miles walking distance from the school. These families should have been included. Had they been included, there would have been more passengers and there would surely have been a bid, as there has been every year for the decades that Teaneck has been providing busing to Bruriah and its brother school, JEC,” he said.

According to state education statutes, students must be provided with transport to and from the school of their choice as long as the school lies within 20 miles of their home. Tolchin noted that Google Maps indicate the students in question live within the legally qualified distance to Bruriah. He also argued that the township’s hands are not tied to strict 20-mile definitions anyway. Even if these students were lawfully disqualified, statutes note that students may also be provided with busing even if such definitions of their home-to-school distances change. “District boards of education that provide for the transportation of students pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18-A: 39-1 or a cooperative transportation services agency may provide for the transportation of resident and nonresident students who are not otherwise eligible for transportation services by any other law and charge the parent or legal guardian for all or part of the cost of this transportation in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18-A: 1.3” (emphasis added).

Tolchin’s correspondence with the BOE lawyer also strongly disputed the goals and intents of the district’s mileage calculations. “While your letter states that you ‘reviewed all student mileage calculations’ to determine that each of these children ‘lives more than 20 miles from the school,’ you did not enclose or document your mileage calculations. Instead, you informed each family of the distance you claim they live from Bruriah. According to your correspondence, each one of these families lives just slightly over 20 miles from Bruriah, but less than 21 miles. You claim one family lives just 0.041 (that’s 41 one-thousandths) of a mile (that’s just 216 feet!) above 20 miles from Bruriah, raising a genuine question of what exact point you are measuring from at Bruriah and at the family’s property in Teaneck,” Tolchin wrote in a letter to Eveland.

Eveland responded that the district’s new software for measuring distance is called Transfinder. “Measurement is made by the shortest distance along public roadways or walkways between the entrance to the student’s home and the nearest public entrance of the school building. This measurement is for eligibility purposes only and is not necessarily the travel path to or from school.”

Tolchin charged back: “We performed our own measurements of straight line distance for each of the listed addresses using the publicly available Google Maps website… None of the listed addresses is more than 20 miles from Bruriah. They are all between 18.57 and 19.19 miles from Bruriah,” Tolchin wrote.

“This is not the first time that the Board of Ed has tried to eliminate busing for non-public school kids,” said Teaneck resident Mordy Rothberg. “Busing is a very important issue in Bergen County and especially Teaneck, and it’s one of the reasons we moved here,” he said.

At press time, Eveland, Simmons and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christopher Irving had not responded to requests for comment from The Jewish Link.

In an email dated August 15, Tolchin told Eveland that since school has not started yet, it is not too late for the district to reverse its policy. “If not, this matter will be litigated and Teaneck will wind up reimbursing my clients for the cost of private transportation (likely much more expensive than a bus), as well as my clients’ legal fees.”

Tolchin told The Jewish Link that even if the district continues to refuse to provide a bus, every student attending Bruriah or JEC from Teaneck must be awarded the $1,000 aid in lieu of busing. In addition to affecting all the girls who attend Bruriah High School, the district’s Bruriah bus cancelation also affects the transportation of eight students who attend either the JEC (a high school for boys) and the girls’ Bruriah Middle School. If these students had not been disqualified, the district’s bid would have been divided by at least 40 students, thus making a bid of last year’s cost of $37,981.05 fall within the per student $1,000 cost.

By Elizabeth Kratz