ERCSD Universal Busing

In his Nov. 17, 2014 report to the New York Commissioner of Education and the Board of Regents, "East Ramapo: A School District in Crisis," fiscal monitor Hank Greenberg made a number of observations about the East Ramapo Central School District's abnormally high transportation costs:

  • The district operates over 300 bus routes, transporting 9,000 public school students to 14 public schools and 23,500 nonpublic school students to more than 140 private schools, most of them yeshivas. Many of the yeshiva bus routes are gender-segregated, resulting in more bus routes than would otherwise be needed.
  • There are no mileage limits on transportation for all K-12 students ("universal busing").
  • From 2006-07 to 2013-14, the district's overall transportation costs increased by 48.1%, more than double the statewide average increase of 21.9%.
  • From 2006-07 to 2013-14, the district's nonpublic school transportation costs increased by 76.6%, more than triple the statewide average increase of 24.1%.
  • From 2008-09 to 2013-14, transportation accounted for an average 11% of the district's total budget; the statewide average over the same period was 5%.
  • Even as the Board was making drastic cuts to public school programs, it was increasing spending on transportation for nonpublic schools. Spending increased every year from $22 million in 2009-10 to $27.3 million in 2013-14.

On Nov. 28, 2014, Yehuda Weissmandl, President of the Board of Education, sent a five-page letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo responding to Greenberg's report. In the letter, Weissmandl's response to the criticism of the Board's above-average spending on transportation is as follows:

The details here are critical: The monitor acknowledged that there was a massive influx of private school students to the district during this period. More students means greater transportation expenses for the district. We, of course, sought to control rising transportation costs, and did take action to reduce the rate of growth, but there was no way we could spend less overall and provide mandated transportation services given the increases in population.

A further relevant point on transportation costs is that the district has had a universal busing policy that was set by referendum 20 years ago and reaffirmed in subsequent referendums. School boards have no power to change voter decisions made by referendum.

Essentially, Weissmandl blames excessive costs on universal busing, and in turn blames the voters in the district for voting universal busing into existence 20 years ago and refusing to get rid of it in subsequent referendums. But what precisely is the district's "universal busing policy?" What exactly did the voters "set by referendum" 20 years ago? And what did they "reaffirm" in those subsequent referendums?

Background: New York Requirements

Section 3635 of New York State Education Law requires school districts to provide transportation to "all children residing within the school district to and from the school they legally attend." However, the law mandates transportation only for students living more than two or three miles from school (depending on grade), and less than fifteen miles from school:

Such transportation shall be provided for all children attending grades kindergarten through eight who live more than two miles from the school which they legally attend and for all children attending grades nine through twelve who live more than three miles from the school which they legally attend and shall be provided for each such child up to a distance of fifteen miles, the distances in each case being measured by the nearest available route from home to school.

The law is clear that while districts may provide transportation to students living less than two/three miles from school or further than fifteen miles from school (i.e., "universal busing"), such services must be approved by the district's voters:

Transportation for a lesser distance than two miles in the case of children attending grades kindergarten through eight or three miles in the case of children attending grades nine through twelve and for a greater distance than fifteen miles may be provided by the district with the approval of the qualified voters, and, if provided, shall be offered equally to all children in like circumstances residing in the district...

Mr. Weissmandl says the district has a universal busing policy; such a policy would presumably cover the provision of these extra services. And he says that the voters approved universal busing in a referendum 20 years ago and have reaffirmed it in later referendums. Let's see.

East Ramapo's Universal Busing Policy

Mr. Weissmandl refers, in his letter to Gov. Cuomo, to East Ramapo's "universal busing policy." Although I was able to find a fairly broad, general policy on transportation on the district's web site, I was unable to find any policy relating to universal busing. Therefore, I submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the district asking for the "complete text of any and all current universal busing policies, including, but not limited to, the policies that authorize and/or require (a) provision of transportation to students attending public or nonpublic schools further away than the state-mandated 15-mile maximum distance, (b) provision of transportation to students attending public or nonpublic schools closer than the state-mandated 2-mile or 3-mile (depending on grade) minimum distance, and (c) the use of multiple buses, separated by gender, to provide transportation services."

In response to my request, I was provided a single document (which is the one available on the web site), described by the District Clerk as the "current school district policy on provision of student transportation." This document states, in its entirety:

The Board of Education shall ensure that an efficient and safe transportation system is established in the school district. Such system shall fulfill all legal requirements for the provision of transportation.

That's it. No mention of "universal busing." No mention of providing transportation to children living less than two or three miles from school. No mention of providing transportation to children living more than fifteen miles from school.

The Transportation Referendums

Mr. Weissmandl states in his letter that universal busing was "set by referendum 20 years ago." In my FOIL request, I also asked the district for the "complete, official text of the original universal busing ballot referendum that was approved by the district's voters '20 years ago,' the year in which it appeared on the ballot, and, if available, the total number of votes for and against the referendum" and also the "complete, official text of each subsequent ballot referendum pertaining to universal busing (or any aspect thereof), the year in which it appeared on the ballot, and, if available, the total number of votes for and against the referendum."

In response to my request, the District Clerk provided information about three ballot referendums: 1993, 1994, and 2009.

The First Two Referendums

In the May 5, 1993 school budget vote, Proposition 2 on the ballot asked whether the district should be authorized to levy taxes to raise additional funding to provide for several items not included in the base budget, including:

Transportation to students in grades kindergarten through 8 living within two miles of the school they legally attend and transportation to students in grades 9 through 12 living within three miles of the school they legally attend, since these students will not otherwise receive transportation as they do not live within the mandated bus transportation limits as set forth in the State Education Law. This proposition provides an increase in transportation over current levels for those students in grades 7 through 12.

Proposition 2 passed, 2,967 to 2,869 (election results, board minutes adopting the budget). So "20 years ago," the district's voters did indeed approve busing for children living closer than two or three miles from school. But the district did not seek authorization for, and the district's voters did not approve, providing transportation beyond the state-mandated fifteen mile limit. Furthermore, this authorization was only for the 1993-94 school year.

In the May 4, 1994 school budget vote. Proposition 2 on the ballot asked essentially the same question as the previous year, except the second sentence was omitted. It passed, 2,049 to 1,803 (election results, board minutes adopting the budget). Again, the voters only approved busing for children living closer than two or three miles; the district did not seek authorization for, and the voters did not approve, providing transportation beyond the fifteen mile limit. And again, this was a one-year authorization, for the 1994-95 school year. 

Apparently, beginning the with 1995-96 school year, the district began including the costs of providing transportation for students living less than two or three miles from school in the regular budget, because there were no more ballot referendums on the topic until 2009.

The Third Referendum

On April 22, 2009, the board adopted this motion (board minutes):

REGARDING ENDING UNIVERSAL BUS TRANSPORTATION AND REPLACING WITH SPECIFIC MILEAGE LIMITATIONS

WHEREAS, currently the Board of Education provides universal bus transportation for all public and nonpublic school students irrespective of the distance from their homes to their schools; and

WHEREAS, due to the severe fiscal constraints now facing the Board of Education, it is in the best interest of the School District to eliminate universal bus transportation and replace it with specific mileage limitations based upon the grade level of students; and

WHEREAS, the Education Law requires that any such change in mileage limitations concerning student bus transportation must be submitted to the voters by way of a specific proposition.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Board of Education does hereby find that the following proposition, to be enumerated as PROPOSITION NO. 2, be placed on the ballot for the annual meeting and trustee election to be held on May 19, 2009:

Should the current practice of universal bus transportation, where every public and nonpublic school student receives transportation to and from school no matter how far the student lives from school, be changed effective at the start of the 2009/2010 school year so as to provide that (1) students in Kindergarten through grade 3 would continue to receive universal bus transportation, (2) students in grades 4 through 6 would receive bus transportation if they live ½ mile or more from their school and (3) students in grades 7 through 12 would receive bus transportation if they live 1 mile or more from their school in order to reduce the cost of bus transportation?

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the District Clerk be authorized to take such action as may be necessary to implement the provision of this resolution.

Note very carefully the wording of the first paragraph, which materially misrepresents what the voters had previously approved. Instead of saying that the district provides transportation for all public and nonpublic school students living up to fifteen miles from the schools they attend, which is what had been specifically asked of and approved by the voters in 1993 and 1994 (and tacitly every year thereafter by through approval of the budget), this sentence says that the district provides transportation to all public and nonpublic school students irrespective of the distance from their homes to their schools. A few paragraphs later, this same misleading wording appears in the text of the ballot proposition itself.

Proposition 2 was defeated, 9,293 to 2,390 (election results).

Questions

Prior to 2009, the district's voters had never been asked to authorize, and had never given authorization for, providing "universal bus transportation, where every public and nonpublic school student receives transportation to and from school no matter how far the student lives from school." They had only been asked to authorize, and indeed did authorize, providing transportation to students living less than two or three miles from school. Since they had never been asked, nor had they ever approved, providing transportation beyond the state-imposed limit of fifteen miles, the district was not authorized to provide such services.

The question is, what does the failure of 2009's Proposition 2 mean? By voting the proposition down, the voters essentially said that they wanted the district's practice of universal transportation where every student is bused to and from school no matter the distance to continue. But the wording of the proposition is misleading, and implies that the district had authorization to provide services beyond the fifteen mile limit when in fact it did not.  By rejecting the proposition, did the voters affirm that they wanted the then-current authorized practice of providing transportation to all students living less than fifteen miles from school to continue, or did they affirm that they wanted an expanded practice that removed the fifteen mile limit?

Clearly, the current board of education has chosen the latter interpretation. It is well documented that the district transports students, at taxpayer expense, to school(s) in Kiryas Joel, which is roughly 25 miles from the district. Anecdotal evidence has been offered from time to time that the district even transports students to schools in Brooklyn (and perhaps other boroughs), which is nearly 40 miles from the district.

Update (Mar. 2, 2015): Section 4402, Paragraph 4(d) of New York State Education Law removes the two or three mile minimum distance, and extends the maximum distance to 50 miles for children with disabilities (defined in Section 4401) attending special education programs:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, such board shall provide suitable transportation up to a distance of fifty miles to and from a nonpublic school which a child with a handicapping condition attends if such child has been so identified by the local committee on special education and such child attends such school for the purpose of receiving services or programs similar to special educational programs recommended for such child by the local committee on special education.

Many, if not all, of the children bused by the district to schools in Kiryas Joel probably meet this criteria (the question of whether they should be sent to Kiryas Joel at all, or placed in a "least restrictive environment" program within the district is beyond the scope of my inquiries.)

Conclusion

At best, Mr. Weissmandl's statements to the governor are only half true.

20 years ago, the district's voters approved a proposition to levy additional taxes in order to provide bus transportation to all children in the district living less than two or three miles from the school they legally attend. And that is all they approved. They were not asked about, nor did they authorize, providing transportation beyond the state-imposed limit of fifteen miles. They were not asked about, nor did they authorize, anything described as "universal busing" or "universal transportation."

In 2009, the district's voters rejected a proposition to eliminate or reduce the provision of transportation services that they had authorized 15 years earlier; they voted to continue to provide transportation to all students living less than two or three miles from school. Although the misleading wording of the proposition on the ballot might be interpreted to include the provision of transportation services beyond the fifteen mile limit, it is clear from the record of public comments at board meetings and other sources that by rejecting the proposition, the voters intended to tell the board that they did not want to make any changes to the services they had already authorized; they did not intend to authorize new services.

The district's current practice of transporting students to schools more than fifteen miles from their homes has never been authorized by the district's voters, and is in contradiction to New York State Education Law. How many "illegal" bus routes are there? I tried FOILing this information from the district (as well as other information, such as whether or not routes were gender-segregated), and was told by the District Clerk, on Dec. 12, 2014:

Because of the nature of the database filing system for transportation routes (Versatrans), we estimate that it will take approximately 8 hours to prepare the records which are responsive to your request.  The hourly salary of the lowest paid employee who is able to prepare this record from our electronic database is $28.77, therefore, there would be a charge of approximately $230.16 for preparation of these documents.  If you choose to authorize this expense please let me know.  I would expect to be able to provide the records by February 27, 2015 if you authorize the expense.

I did not authorize the expense. Perhaps, once the legislature approves a state monitor for the district, he or she can obtain this information and determine just how many taxpayer dollars are being illegally spent by the board to provide unauthorized transportation services.

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