The Twists and Turns of the Ongoing ERCSD's Transportation Crisis

The Twists and Turns of the Ongoing ERCSD's Transportation Crisis
By M.C. Millman

The East Ramapo School Board held a public meeting last night focusing on ongoing transportation issues that have gotten the school year off to a very challenging start for ERCSD schools and a tremendous number of parents in the school district. 

"I understand your frustration completely," Dr. Clarence G. Ellis, ERCSD Superintendent, launched the conversation at the meeting, stressing that the district is working diligently to solve the transportation issues in the largest district and the second largest transportation busing company behind New York City.

Ellis explained that many of the problems being reported by thousands of parents on the busing of 42,500 students a day are a result of two issues. 

According to Ellis, the first issue is the bus companies' shortage. The second issue was that one of the companies that secured the contract for busing this year realized at the last minute that the job was a bigger undertaking than they had presumed and canceled the contract. 

Much later in the meeting, it was clarified that it wasn't only one bus company that dropped their contract for nine schools but three bus companies that backed out of routes, leaving about 2,000 students with no busing whatsoever.

While Ellis admitted that at the beginning of the school year, "There are usually hiccups, but not like this. Even two years ago, when there was a driver shortage, it wasn't this bad." 
The Superintendent informed parents that they would be entitled to reimbursement at the maximum rate allowed by law for driving their children to and from school and suggested parents keep a log to make the compensation process easier later. 

A speaker later pointed out that reimbursement of sixty-five cents per mile could hardly compensate her for the time it takes her, which is a minimum of eighteen minutes to drive her child the one-and-a-half mile distance home from school. The paltry sum doesn't even begin to cover the cost of gas, let alone time off from work, for those lucky enough to be able to drop everything and run to pick up their children when the buses don't show up. Other mentioned jobs placed in jeopardy, and businesses harmed by employees arriving late and leaving early due to busing issues. 

Ellis shared that a number of backup options are in the works to get things up and running, including an emergency bid that went out on September 8 to cover the route of the company that canceled service. (At the time of his statement, Ellis, together with the entire board, was unaware that there were actually three bus companies and not just one that had dropped their contract.)
"And we will do this a few more times until every route and every child is covered," Ellis said. 

After Dr. Ellis, the community was given the opportunity to speak. After addressing the main issue, that of no busing or incredibly convoluted routes taking hours longer than they should, speakers seemed most frustrated with the lack of communication and were unwilling to accept the platitudes of the Superintendent. Many shared that not only do the busing companies not pick up the phone, but they also don't return calls or respond to emails. The ERCSD transportation phone number also is not picked up for the most part and instead hangs up on callers after a set number of rings.

Not only did parents present this issue, but a yeshiva principal spoke of the same non-responsiveness and lack of transparency, demanding that her school receive daily updates, if not twice daily. She also pointed out that while last year her school received nine buses, this year they only have four buses assigned to the school, reflecting other parent's pointed comment that the board should compare the number of last year's buses with this year's numbers for Yeshiva of Spring Valley Girls. Then, they will start to understand part of what's behind the problem.

Another menahel, the director of a K-12 school, spoke as well, addressing the terrible toll the huge uncertainty is placing on his 361 talmidim who are suffering from very real anxiety about how and when they will be getting home. 

"The children feel unsafe," he said. "Not only that, but the faculty is forced to stay late without pay because they can't leave the children alone." 

He concluded by asking why parents are required to get in their busing requests by the transportation department by April 1 while the district is not held to the same standard of accountability regarding transportation.

Others brought up the point that the ERCSD busing registration system is archaic because ERCSD still registers students through a paper-only registration system, which are non-trackable. This fact left many wondering about the Director of Transportation, Jeanette Silva's response to the question Board Member Yitzchok Gruber asked her about whether all of the students registered by April 1 would be getting a bus pass.

"All of those who registered by April 1 will get a bus pass," was her initial reply.

When Gruber pressed her as to what he should answer the countless parents who have approached him to tell him that their children were registered on time yet still did not have bus passes, she replied that every request from parents would be investigated and that emails had to be reviewed to see if indeed those parents had registered in time. 

Strangely, no one pointed out that it is hard to understand how transportation staff could possibly be investigating emails to see if parents registered when ERCSD only allows hard-copy registration forms.
Another frustration was the fact that the ERCSD has been here before. When school started last year, busing issues and lack of communication from the transportation department were reported by Rockland Daily here. and just like this year, countless parents knew they handed in their forms by April 1, and the transportation department demanded proof that simply isn't there when it comes to paper forms, as reported by Rockland Daily here.

And just like last year in the same article, Board member Harry Grossman stated, "As I said for two years - at multiple board meetings, what's needed is to automate the systems to be entered electronically."
Grossman reminded the board that he had asked for an RFP in July to create an automated system, with nothing forthcoming.

"The longer we wait," said Grossman, "the longer it's not going to happen for next year."

Grossman also asked that busing status updates be provided for the public via the ERCSD's website, Facebook, and Twitter. His idea was shot down by the State Monitor Bruce Singer, who insisted that since the busing situation fluctuates hour by hour, providing information to the public would only lead to more frustration. 

Singer also suggested that the school budget being voted down year after year somehow played a role in the present crisis, which has resulted in the transportation department receiving responses to their emergency bid with pricing at forty-seven dollars per student instead of the seven dollars a head they are presently paying. He went on to say that the emergency pricing would quickly bankrupt the entire school district. 

"We're in a crisis mode," Shimmy Rose, ERCSD board president, declared near the close of the night. He suggested that as communication is the number one priority after getting students to and from school that, ERCSD workers in non-essential positions should be moved over during the crisis to answer calls and emails until the situation calms down."

One of the most surprising outcomes of the night was the genuine surprise expressed by the board to how bad the busing problems actually are.

"Every board member," said Sherry McGill board member, "thought everything was under control in terms of transportation - but people didn't even get their bus passes! We apologize because there has to be accountability. People shouldn't have to worry about having to go to work or needing a babysitter. Enough is enough! This is not the only school district in Rockland County, but it is the only one with these issues. We have to figure it out and how to do better for the people. We have to do something about it now, and I mean now!" 

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