Montgomery County Council adds funds for private school busing

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Melvin Berman Hebrew Academy students Ezra Einhorn and Eliana Elikan told members of the Montgomery County Council how important school busing was to them. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

By unanimous vote Tuesday, Montgomery County Council agreed to spend $240,560 to continue a pilot program that will enable students in private schools to ride Montgomery County public school buses to and from school.

All 20 people, including two students from Melvin Berman Hebrew Academy, who spoke at the March 3 public hearing in Rockville favored the program. Busing children results in fewer cars on the road, reduces pollution and relieves parents of time-consuming carpooling, they said.

The pilot program began in September 2014 and picks up and drops off about 2,600 students from three Jewish day schools, two Catholic schools and one nonsectarian school. The county covers 78 percent of the program’s cost while the users pay the remaining 22 percent.

“The fact is that 20 percent of Montgomery County children don’t go to public schools,” said Maryland Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Dist. 19), who has supported the busing program since its inception.

Jennifer Zuckerman, development director at Berman Academy, testified that 421 of the school’s 700 students travel by bus now and that the program has been so successful that the school has started “a hybrid program,” using its own bus to bring 75 additional students to school.

More than 50 of the eighth and ninth graders filled a third of the council auditorium to support the program and to learn about government.

Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director of the Orthodox Union, which has been the driving force for private school busing, called the program a success, adding, “There will be no denying that the Jewish schools will make up the bulk” of the riders.

Ephraim Leibtag, who lives across the street from one of the bus stops, said he has noticed a real decrease in traffic both in his immediate Kemp Mill neighborhood as well as on some of the larger nearby streets.

Bernice Cohen, whose children attend Berman Academy, called the program “a life changer, a life saver.” She now has an additional hour in the morning and afternoon to get work done. Also, she said, “I have saved a tremendous amount of money on gas.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Charner, headmaster at the Torah School of Greater Washington, strongly supports the program and said that 54 percent of his students participate. On Monday through Thursday afternoons when the bus program is utilized, about 25 cars pull up to the school. In contrast, on Fridays, when school is dismissed early, between 90 and 100 cars are there.

At the end of the public hearing, Councilman Roger Berliner, chair of the county’s transportation, infrastructure, energy and environment committee, praised the program, saying it had eased traffic congestion, improved the environment and allowed parents to spend their time more wisely.

Berliner said that the additional $250,000 just approved would allow the buses to keep rolling during the 2015 fiscal year, but the program would need to be voted on again for the 2016 budget.

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