Some of the Secaucus Board of Education members and the mayor and Town Council are locked in a disagreement over the need for transporting school children from the Riverside Court community.
School board trustees passed a resolution on Oct. 18 to renew the agreement between the municipality and the Board of Education to provide busing to the students residing in the Riverside complex. The resolution allows the town to contract a school bus and driver for $34,000 to transport Riverside children to and from Huber Street Elementary School.
Several school board members opposed allowing the municipality to pay for the busing but lacked the votes to block the resolution, and it passed six to three.
Students at Riverside are not eligible for busing because the complex is within two miles by walking and driving, which means the district is not required to bus them. One major issue in the dispute is the safety of the shortest route to school, which is .5 miles or a ten-minute walk that is accessible via a gate. The police department recently stated the walk route is not recommended.
The issue spilled over onto the Town Council meeting on Oct. 23 when Mayor Michael Gonnelli said the school board is charging the municipality for too many hours and also uses the bus to pick up children at the Xchange development, which they are required to do.
A tale of two blocks
“I think it is a great disservice, allowing other children to see kids riding the bus,” said Trustee MaryAnn Weiner during the Oct. 18 meeting. “I have people in my own neighborhood that are 50 feet away from the gate walking their kids to school every morning.” Weiner said she lives on Hagan Place about 200 feet away from the entrance to the gated community.
Riverside Court consists of 212 three-story luxury homes. Kids on the other side of the gate that live on streets like Hagan Place and Paulanne Terrace do not get courtesy busing.
Parents who live in Riverside Court have said that their children have to walk on streets without sidewalks and crosswalks to get to the gate and then cross a busy curving road. The request for a school bus dates back to the previous administration when parents petitioned the former mayor.
“I have people in my own neighborhood that are 50 feet away from the gate walking their kids to school every morning.” – MaryAnn Weiner
If parents choose to drive their children, the trip is approximately two miles there and 1.17 miles back.
State statute says that eligibility for busing is determined on the shortest route along public roadways or walkways between the residence and the school. If the municipality finds that for safety reasons it is desirable to provide transportation then they can enter into an agreement with the school to bus the children. The municipality is also free to charge parents for this service, according to the state statute.
Gupta was joined by a number of other parents who said the vehicular route is not direct and that the walking route is not shoveled in the winter, among other issues.
When told that kids on Hagan Place do not get bused, the Riverside parents responded that they pay double the property taxes as those who live on that street. Town Administrator David Drumeler confirmed this is the case, since Riverside is considered new construction and the homes are taxed at their current market value.
Determining a hazardous route
“This sets a precedent for taxpayers to pick up busing,” said Trustee Dora Marra.
“I resent as a taxpayer having to pay for the town to send a certain group of children to school,” said former Trustee Eleanor Reinl. “I lived over on Fifth Street behind Clarendon and my kids walked up to the high school.”
According to state statute a school district can provide courtesy busing when a route to school is deemed hazardous based on traffic volume, vehicle velocity, absence of sufficient sidewalk space, and roads and highways that are winding or have blind curves among a number of other criteria.
The drivable route was originally deemed unsafe for walking in 2010 by Deputy Chief John Cerny, who was a lieutenant at the time, in a document stating that students would have to cross four lanes of a busy Meadowland Parkway and walk on a street with blocks of sidewalk missing.
Cerny wrote another statement on Oct. 23 stating that the route via the gate has steps that would need to be revised to accommodate anyone with a physical disability, that additional crossing guards would be needed, and that a sidewalk is required on grass between the gate and the street.
“To ensure maximum safety for the students, while reducing liability for the Town of Secaucus, these changes would need to be implemented. However, this route is not recommended as these changes do not appear cost effective,” said Cerny in the statement.
Town Administrator David Drumeler said that it costs the town $14,000 a year per crossing guard, which can exceed the cost of the bus depending on the number of people hired. He also said the municipality can’t put down a sidewalk because it is private property.
“It is only a two block walk,” said Trustee Salvatore Manente. “It is not a dangerous area. Other areas that don’t have sidewalks such as Central Lane, Acorn, Farm Road, those types of places…those areas are dangerous areas.”
Both Weiner and Marra questioned why the Riverside complex was not required to build handicap accessible entrances. According to the board members the school board buses children with disabilities.
Cost to bus students
“For us to be paying $3,000 a month to do something that the board of ed should be doing because they are mandated to do…it is really a slap in our face,” said Gonnelli during the Oct. 23 council meeting. He pointed out that the same bus that picks up the children at Riverside also picks up 16 kindergartners from the Xchange development, which the school board is required to do. He also said that the municipality is being billed for four hours when the trip to and from the school takes no more than two hours.
“It appears to me that our bill should be $1,000 a month, not $3,000,” said Gonnelli. “When you start making these accusations about wasting taxpayer dollars…I don’t think you can waste one taxpayer’s dollar on a child’s safety.”
The school administration was not immediately available to comment.
Gonnelli’s assertion didn’t sit well with former board trustee Tom Troyer who approached the podium during the public comments portion of the meeting.
“Everyone knows an idiot when they see one not when they are being one,” Troyer said during the public remarks.
“Are you calling me an idiot?” asked Gonnelli.
“No I am not,” he replied. Then Troyer asked, “Are you calling the three board members who voted against busing…[that] they don’t care about the safety of the kids? Is that what you are saying?
“Pretty much,” said Gonnelli.
“Well you are wrong,” said Troyer. “If [the school board meeting] was televised, you would have heard and seen what they said. You take something and distort it. You have a lot of nerve to say they are against the safety of the kids.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.