The Secaucus municipality will offer residents at Creekside Manor paid school busing, probably charging $500 a school year to take the children to Huber Street Elementary School, which is less than a mile away.
However, the district is busing students at another nearby development, Riverside Court, for free.
The Creekside measure comes after parents complained at a Town Council meeting in September that their children were left waiting for a bus that never showed up on the first day of school. Last year both the school district and the municipality began busing kids from the development because of construction along the route. However, the reason behind how the busing began in the first place and who authorized it has been a point of contention and confusion.
The issue boiled over during the Secaucus school board meeting on Nov. 15, when Mayor Michael Gonnelli accused Board Trustee Salvatore Manente, who was board president last year, of authorizing the busing without board approval and making a determination on the route’s safety, which Gonnelli said he is not qualified to do.
Manente disagreed with a police report saying the route to school was unsafe for Riverside Court. He voted against allowing the municipality to lease a bus from the school district to bus children from this development in October.
Gonnelli feels that his hands are tied in busing the Creekside Manor kids because of Manente’s “mistake.” Manente feels the mayor is dividing the town by offering one development busing for free while charging another one.
Qualms over courtesy busing
Riverside Court is a gated community located two blocks from Huber. The municipality has leased a bus and driver from the school district for courtesy busing because the Police Department says the walking route is unsafe since it lacks crossing guards and handicap access, among other items. However, the school board would not bus children from Riverside Court because it is within a two-mile radius of the school.
Manente was among the three school board trustees who disagreed with the police and voted against the measure in October to allow the municipality to lease a bus from the school district.
Manente also wrote a letter to the editor disputing the mayor’s assertion during the Oct. 23 Town Council meeting that he was not concerned with the safety of school children.
“It was authorized somewhere.” – Ron Smith
During the Nov. 15 school board meeting, Gonnelli accused Manente of approving the busing for Creekside Manor last year without authorization.
“He spent board money without your approval,” said Gonnelli. “Mr. Manente stepped in and said ‘I want this done’ and it was done.”
Manente denied that he approved the busing or that he knew it was happening before it began.
“I was totally unaware that [children] were being picked up there until it came to us that there were children being picked up there,” said Manente.
When the busing from Creekside Manor began, who began the busing, and what bus was used remain a bit of a mystery. Officials from the school administration and the municipality could not recall precise details.
However, Creekside condo board President Linda Quentzel said after the school board meeting that her repeated requests to Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina for a bus were rejected until she asked for the bus in front of Manente at an event last summer.
According to Quentzel, she said to them both, “It is a shame that we can’t get busing at Creekside,” and that Manente told Randina, “‘Get them busing.’”
She said after that meeting all of the Creekside families received phone calls from the school administration, and then, “We all of a sudden had a bus.”
“I thought that the community might be entitled to it because I believe that walking was very dangerous,” said Quentzel.
Manente at first did not recall meeting Quentzel. Days later, he remembered that he and Randina met a woman at an event in Union City who raised the issue of busing at Creekside Manor.
“She asked ‘Can we get busing because the kids can’t walk there because there is construction going on…there is no sidewalk,’ ” said Manente. “I said to Mrs. Randina, ‘If it is that bad, maybe we can get them busing?’ ”
“The superintendent must have okay’d it,” said Manente in regard to who issued the directive to send a bus to that development.
Manente said that Debbie Zapoluch, transportation supervisor, said that Randina called her and said “Let’s look into this.”
“We only did it for a week or two,” added Manente. “At that point everything was fixed…it was stopped.”
Most people interviewed regarding this issue pointed to Zapoluch as the best source of information on the topic, but she was prohibited from speaking to the press.
Instead, Business Administrator Ron Smith offered another version of events in regard to how the busing began.
Smith said that he oversees the transportation department and is responsible for all decisions. At first he said that neither he nor the transportation department authorized the bus.
“Whatever they did, they did,” he said. “It was authorized somewhere. Maybe the superintendent talked to Debbie.”
Randina would not comment on the matter.
He then said that it was authorized because there was construction near the development but that upon closer direct inspection he saw that there was a safe walking route available with a sidewalk that posed no danger.
“At that point we stopped it,” said Smith. “We told people we can’t do it.”
He said the busing stopped after a week or so and then the town resumed it as a courtesy. He said the decision to bus children did not have to wait for a board approval because the administration can respond quickly if urgently needed. He said, for example, if a child had a physical disability or special need, the administration would arrange busing before getting board approval.
He said the sidewalks put in made the area better and the route is not hazardous.
“There is definitely no reason to bus them,” said Smith. “That is why I believe the town got out of the business.”
Town steps in, bus aide provided by school
“The transportation coordinators worked it out,” said Town Administrator David Drumeler. “The school provided a [bus] aide [and] asked us if we would do the busing part.” He said the school district requested the town provide busing for Creekside Manor but the issue did not reach him.
“I wasn’t even aware that we were busing the kids,” said Drumeler. The mayor and Town Council never voted on the matter, according to Drumeler.
“I don’t know what was picking them up,” said Drumeler as to whether it was one of the old white recreation buses, which don’t have safety equipment, or some other bus. But he said he assumed it was a small, municipal passenger bus. He said in September that the municipal busing stopped once the sidewalk was repaired.
In a follow up interview Gonnelli said that he never approved of the municipal bus for Creekside and that he “can’t even tell you how that happened…it was probably approved in our transportation division.”
“The busing should have never started in the first place,” said Gonnelli. “People now depend on it.”
When the bus did not show up on the first day of school this year, parents were upset. After being told to take up their issue with the municipality by the school administration, they showed up to the Sept. 30 Town Council requesting busing.
Creekside parents say route is unsafe
“I strongly believe that the walking route is unsafe,” said Quentzel.
The municipality plans to charge parents approximately $500 for the academic year to pick up their children. Gonnelli has asked the Police Department to assess the route and make a determination but he believes the route is safe.
“I think he just split the town with what he did with the busing,” said Manente in regard to charging the Creekside Manor parents and not those from Riverside Court. “I think that he should just have courtesy busing for everybody.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.