Par­ents raise bus­ing con­cerns

The Community Connection - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

Even though Melissa Dougherty only lives about two miles from Pope John Paul II High School, it takes her son nearly one hour to be get to school on the bus ser­vice pro­vided by Spring-Ford Area School Dis­trict.

On Sept. 24, she and two other PJP par­ents — Lisa DiRico and Colleen O’Brien — asked the school board to pro­vide a shorter ride.

“I have two girls that go to Spring-Ford and they get home pretty quickly, and a son who goes to Pope John Paul and his ride is 55 min­utes,” Dougherty said.

And last week, a dif­fer­ent school board fielded a dif­fer­ent bus­ing com­plaint from a dif­fer­ent set of par­ents from a dif­fer­ent Catholic school.

Three Pottstown par­ents whose chil­dren at­tend St. Aloy­sius Parish School in Lower Pottsgrove com­plained at the Sept. 20 Pottstown School Board meet­ing that once their chil­dren com­plete fifth grade, the dis­trict stops bus­ing them, even though it had when they were younger.

In both cases, the an­swers the par­ents re­ceived are rooted in Penn­syl­va­nia law.

Although state law does not re­quire a school dis­trict to pro­vide trans­porta­tion to its stu­dents at all, when it does, pub­lic school dis­tricts must pro­vide trans­porta­tion for all stu­dents, pub­lic and pri­vate — and un­der the same con­straints.

Ac­cord­ing to the Penn­syl­va­nia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion: “When a school dis­trict pro­vides trans­porta­tion for its pub­lic pupils, it must pro­vide trans­porta­tion ser­vices to non­pub­lic pupils of the same grade level that it is pro­vid­ing for its own pupils. The non­pub­lic school must be non­profit and lo­cated within ten miles of the dis­trict’s bound­ary, mea­sured by the near­est pub­lic road. If the school build­ing in which the pupil is en­rolled is not lo­cated within the ten-mile dis­tance, the non­pub­lic pupil is not el­i­gi­ble for trans­porta­tion, nor are his par­ents el­i­gi­ble for pay­ment to­wards trans­porta­tion costs.”

And that is the pri­mary rule gov­ern­ing the com­plaints made by Mary Robin­son, Mike Scatarella and Michelle Gaski, all of whom wanted to know why Pottstown stops trans­port­ing their chil­dren af­ter fifth grade at St. Aloy­sius Parish School, which ed­u­cates chil­dren through the eighth grade.

“A lot of the buses go right past our house, it’s not like we’re not ask­ing them to make a stop they didn’t al­ways make,” said Scatarella, who lives across town on Up­land Street.

The sim­ple an­swer is, Pottstown is a walk­ing school dis­trict and all stu­dents walk, with the ex­cep­tion of those who have to cross Route 100 to get to school.

That road is con­sid­ered a haz­ard by Pen­nDOT and so the dis­trict must trans­port stu­dents who would cross it to get to school. But fifth grade is the last grade

for which that trans­porta­tion is pro­vided, con­firmed John Ar­mato, the dis­trict’s direc­tor of com­mu­nity re­la­tions.

That means, as Pottstown School Board Pres­i­dent Amy Fran­cis ex­plained to the St. Aloy­sius par­ents last week, that it is the last grade for which trans­porta­tion is pro­vided to the Keim Street Catholic school as well.

“If we pro­vided bus trans­porta­tion for your six­th­graders, then we would have to do it for the whole dis­trict, and that would be very ex­pen­sive,” said Fran­cis, not­ing that Pottstown is al­ready un­der-funded by the state by more than $13 mil­lion each year and had to raise taxes 3.5 per­cent for the cur­rent year to bal­ance its bud­get.

Pottstown also com­pletely out­sourced its trans­porta­tion depart­ment, lay­ing off 14 em­ploy­ees.

“Some cor­ners have no cross­ing guards and we are count­ing on older sib­lings to get stu­dents home,” said Spruce Street res­i­dent Mary Robin­son.

Ac­cord­ing to the state ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment, “Pen­nDOT reg­u­la­tions do not ad­dress haz­ards other than road or traf­fic con­di­tions. The lo­cal dis­trict may as­sess con­di­tions such as bad neigh­bor­hoods, se­cluded wooded ar­eas, snow re­moval, etc., when de­vel­op­ing trans­porta­tion routes.” Gaski, a res­i­dent of North Evans Street, said the school is “three or four miles” from her home. (A Google Maps check in­di­cated it is 1.7 miles.)

Ac­cord­ing to state rules, a school dis­trict can ask a stu­dent to walk as much as 1.5 miles to a school or bus stop.

A sin­gle mother rais­ing two chil­dren and a grand­son, Gaski said she is cur­rently us­ing Uber to get her child to school, “but that costs a lot of money and I don’t make a lot of money,” she said.

Fran­cis said she sent her chil­dren to pri­vate school for a time, “so I re­ally do un­der­stand.” Nev­er­the­less, she told the par­ents that although the dis­trict has an­swered this ques­tion be­fore, it would be re-ex­am­ined.

She in­vited them to the Oct. 11 pol­icy com­mit­tee meet­ing where it would be dis­cussed.

At Spring-Ford, the prob­lem is not that the buses don’t take their stu­dents, but that it takes too long, the par­ents said Sept. 24.

Dougherty said the af­ter­noon bus run takes just Pope John Paul II stu­dents and is not a prob­lem. But the morn­ing run takes nearly an hour, takes all the PJP stu­dents to SpringFord High School “where they have to wait an­other 15 min­utes,” be­fore a bus brings them to their school.

“We’re forced to drive our chil­dren, oth­er­wise they’re on the bus for an hour,” said DiRico who, like Daugh­erty, lives in the Prov­i­dence Chase de­vel­op­ment off Hop­wood Road in Up­per Prov­i­dence.

State rules set no time lim­its on how long a school bus ride can be.

Spring-Ford Su­per­in­ten­dent David Goodin said the dis­trict strives to make all bus runs un­der an hour and said be­cause the schools have dif­fer­ent start times, the routes are made to be as ef­fi­cient as pos­si­ble.

But Dougherty, who said she pays $12,000 a year in taxes and should get bet­ter ser­vice for her money, ar­gued that a bus ride of nearly an hour to travel two miles can­not be con­sid­ered ef­fi­cient.

“And some­times they have to sit three to a seat,” said DiRico. “Ev­ery­body’s work­ing and this is in­con­ve­nient. We should get tax re­duc­tion.”

Af­ter the meet­ing, School Board Pres­i­dent Tom DiBello told the moth­ers he would look into the mat­ter and see if he could find them a bet­ter an­swer.

DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA — EVAN BRANDT

Stu­dents from St. Aloy­sius Catholic School dodge rain drops to board buses pro­vided by sev­eral dif­fer­ent school dis­tricts.

EVAN BRANDT — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Pope John Paul II High School par­ents, from left, Colleen O’Brien, Melissa Dougherty and Lisa DiRico, all at­tended Sept. 24’s Spring-Ford Area School Board meet­ing to ad­vo­cate for shorter bus rides for their chil­dren.

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