County slams brakes on busing program

Disappointed parents gather at the end of last week’s Montgomery County Council’s transportation and education committee meetings after learning that funding for the pilot program had been slashed.  Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Disappointed parents gather at the end of last week’s Montgomery County Council’s transportation and education committee meetings after learning that funding for the pilot program had been slashed.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Updated May 6, 2015

A pilot program that has enabled Jewish day school students to ride Montgomery County public school buses to and from classes likely will be slashed to a bare-bones program that won’t even include busing students at all.

Members of the County Council’s transportation and education committees April 29 voted unanimously to end the busing subsidy, noting that when county public schools officially move back starting times by 10 to 20 minutes during the 2015-16 school year, the program no longer will be economically feasible.

Rather than slash the entire $660,000 program, the council agreed to allocate $159,000 to pay a consultant who will document various scenarios, including using nonprofit organizations, and the costs associated with each, should the county decide to keep the program going in some form.

The council’s recommendation will be included in the county’s fiscal year 2016 budget that will be voted on by June 1.

The pilot program began in September 2014. Currently, buses pick up and drop off some 2,600 students from three Jewish day schools, two Catholic schools and one nonsectarian school. The county pays 78 percent of the cost while the users pay the remaining 22 percent.

Melvin Berman Hebrew Academy, the Torah School of Greater Washington and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington participate in the program, which was designed to reduce the number of cars on the road.

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Jennifer Zukerman, development director at Berman Academy.

Private school busing is not dead, but “it’s on life support,” she added. “It doesn’t feel like the pilot was given a fair shake.”

While calling the vote discouraging, Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director of the Orthodox Union, said she considered it a positive sign that the program wasn’t defunded completely.

The bad news, she said, is that “we are going into September without a program.”

County Executive Ike Leggett, a supporter of the program, called the decision regrettable in an April 30 memo that he sent to members of the committee. “I cannot understand why council members would want to end a successful and promising project costing a relatively small amount of money,” adding that he remains committed to this project. “I am convinced there is a public benefit in using public and shared private resources to assist private school parents in reducing commuter trips to and from school during rush hour.”

Delegate Bonnie Cullison of District 19, whose efforts helped bring the busing program to fruition, and her community liaison, Ira Ungar, are working with Leggett, school administrators and transportation leaders to develop a plan that would allow the program to continue in time for the start of the new school year.

So many parents and Berman Academy students attended Wednesday afternoon’s meeting that it had to be moved from the council’s regular meeting room to the larger public hearing room.

During the 45-minute meeting, Essie McGuire, senior legislative analyst for the county, explained that the change in starting times at the public schools would result in more condensed morning bus runs and afternoon ones that would begin later in the day.

“As a result, it is not going to be feasible” to continue the pilot program without greatly adding to the cost, McGuire said.

County staff issued a 40-page memorandum on the program, which covered whether busing for private schools should be a priority use of county funds and whether private school transit should be a county goal, McGuire explained.

Typically, a county subsidy is allocated to a program that focuses on those in need, either financially or physically. Seventy-six percent of users of the county’s Ride On program earn less than $55,000 a year, said Glenn Orlin, deputy council administrator.

While the county doesn’t track income levels of families that send their children to private schools, he noted that tuition is “quite high” at private schools. “You have to ask the question” if there is a financial need, Orlin said.

Berman Academy parent Neil Siegel, disappointed that the busing program may not continue, said that “if these students were in public school, there would be no means testing.”

The county staff also noted that traffic has not been greatly reduced during the pilot program and that some of the county’s private schools aren’t located on the county’s busiest intersections.

Financially, the staff also noted that should the program ever grow to include students from all the county’s 200 nonpublic schools, with an estimated 35,000 students, costs would be much higher.

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