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UPDATE - September 9: Diocese of Metuchen and Piscataway Township School District officials meet to discuss nonpublic school transportation Read More...
PISCATAWAY – The Diocese of Metuchen Department of Education has filed a formal complaint with the State of New Jersey against the Piscataway Public School District for failing to comply with state regulations on the provision of nonpublic school transportation to its residents.
Forty students at two Catholic schools in the diocese were denied busing after the district transportation department neglected to put the existing bus routes out to bid. As a result, parents of eight students previously enrolled in those schools said they would transfer their children to one of the districts’ public schools because their families rely on busing.
Diocesan superintendent of schools Ellen Ayoub said parents of students at Holy Savior Academy and St. Francis Cathedral School filed their required paperwork on time last school year and are very frustrated that Piscataway district transportation officials waited until August to begin to try to find buses for their children, to no avail. “These 40 township students should be treated the same as the public school students,” Ayoub said. “They should not be an afterthought.”
“Together, township residents enrolled at Holy Savior and St. Francis schools would save taxpayers a minimum of $552,500 this year. Certainly, busing students to the schools of their choice would be a more prudent and fiscally responsible option for Piscataway school district,” said Ayoub. According to the district’s website, the current per pupil cost is about $13,275, excluding transportation and other expenditures.
In another attempt to reinstate student busing to the two schools, on Sept. 4, the diocese submitted a petition for arbitration to the Middlesex County Office of Education, stating a dispute with Piscataway school district, which it maintains violated three statutes in its decision not to provide bus transportation to nonpublic schools students who reside in the township during the 2015-2016 academic year. In the petition, Ayoub outlined the infractions and requested that Dr. Laura C. Morana, Interim Executive County Superintendent, arbitrate the matter.
The complaint was submitted after 66 students who attend Holy Savior Academy, South Plainfield; St. Francis Cathedral School, Metuchen; and Rutgers Preparatory School, Somerset, were notified in August by Piscataway school district that they were being declined bus transportation because “there is no bus route traveling close to [their] home.”
Holy Savior Academy and St. Francis Cathedral School are Catholic schools of the Diocese of Metuchen. Rutgers Preparatory School is an independent school.
Kim Chorba, director of government programs for the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, which advocates for effective nonpublic school policy issues on behalf of Diocese of Metuchen, has been communicating with state and district transportation officials this summer on busing issues.
“There were several ‘red flags’ that we encountered during the process of communicating with transportation representatives that led to our finding that Piscataway didn’t do what it was supposed to do in order to secure bus transportation for all students residing in the township,” said Chorba.
“In our view, the district neglected to take the proper steps, as mandated by the state, to find buses to assume the existing routes for nonpublic school students. Therefore, we are seeking arbitration with the hope to resolve the matter and reverse the decision.”
In addition to notifying school families after the required Aug. 1 deadline, it was discovered the district failed to put nonpublic bus routes out for bid before it declined to provide transportation to nonpublic school students which, Chorba said, is in direct violation of the terms and conditions set forth by the state.
“There is a process by which the district is expected to solicit the provision of transportation of nonpublic school students and the district neglected to follow the protocol, to the detriment of 66 students and their families,” she said.
State records indicate Piscataway Public School District first put nonpublic bus routes out for bid on Aug. 11, after families were notified there would be no busing. “This violation is most grievous,” she said.
Nine days later, after no bus companies had bid on those routes, they were sent to the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission (MRESC) to bid on. On Aug 25, the diocese was informed by a state student transportation representative that, “options are limited given that acceptable bids are not coming in.”
“The trend has become that the nonpublic schools are spending the summer months fighting to secure bus transportation for students,” said Chorba. “It is our desire that all students receive the services that they deserve, from the districts in which they reside, where their families contribute to the district’s education system through their tax dollars.
“Students and their families shouldn’t have to fight for a ride to the school of their choice.”
In addition to Piscataway, the diocese has been working this summer to resolve student transportation issues in various districts within Middlesex and Somerset counties, including Jamesburg, Monroe Township, Old Bridge, and South Brunswick.
In neighboring Monmouth County, the Matawan/Aberdeen school district has declined bus transportation to students of St. Ambrose School in Old Bridge, also in the Diocese of Metuchen.
In a joint letter to parents and guardians, Holy Savior Academy Principal Kristen Kiernan and St. Francis Cathedral School Principal Barbara Stevens informed their respective school communities of the situation and assured them that they are working with the Diocese of Metuchen in an attempt to reinstate bus services for the 40 Piscataway students who applied for transportation this year and were denied.
The principals’ letter read, in part, “You may be fortunate to reside in a township that provides bus services for the 2015 – 2016 school year. However, it is important to know that your child’s busing services may be similarly affected in the years to come.”
Stevens said that she has seen an increase in districts that decline transportation for nonpublic students and instead offer “aid in lieu” of transportation. Currently, the amount is $884 per pupil per year.
“While aid in lieu of transportation may work for some, it does not work for most,” said Stevens. “Most families we’ve heard from prefer receiving reliable school bus transportation for their children rather than a minimal annual stipend to compensate for lack of busing. It’s simply not a practical solution for many families who rely on busing for their children.”
“When a district eliminates student transportation to and from a nonpublic school, it has a ripple effect for that entire school community. It threatens overall enrollment and, therefore, the future of our school.”
At this point, Holy Savior Academy has lost seven enrolled students and St. Francis Cathedral School has lost one because of Piscataway district’s decision to decline bus transportation to their schools.
“Other school families who reside in Piscataway are holding out to see if we can resolve this matter with the district because this is the school of their choice,” said Stevens. “We are hopeful that, with further dialogue, we can find a way to reinstate bus service for the affected students.”
School representatives are hoping to have an opportunity to speak to decision-makers at the next Piscataway Township Board of Education meeting to be held Thurs., Sept. 10. Kiernan said the schools have put in a request to be added to the official meeting agenda. They have already selected delegates, who will voice concerns on behalf of the two school communities.
“We’ve invited all parents and guardians to attend the upcoming Board of Education meeting, whether they reside in Piscataway Township or not,” Kiernan said. “We’ve asked them to come in support of the greater school community, to help these students obtain the services they so greatly deserve.”
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