ROCKVILLE (MD)–– It’s been 18 months since Montgomery County’s public school buses last transported students to six private schools, including three Jewish day schools.
Under the county’s non-public school traffic mitigation program, which began in September 2014, approximately 2,600 students from the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, the Torah School of Greater Washington and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington rode on public school buses every day. Two Catholic schools and one nonsectarian school also benefitted from the program.
The county covered 78 percent of the cost for the use of the buses and drivers. The schools were responsible for the remaining 22 percent, which they passed on to the participating parents.
But in the Spring of 2015, the county council slashed the program’s proposed $600,000 budget to $159,000. That reduced sum was then designated for paying a consultant to come up with a way to continue the program.
Since then, the county has not set aside any additional money for private school busing–– but that hasn’t stopped parents and administrators from trying to bring those yellow school buses back.
“It’s a shame you have to be a full-time advocate to get your kids to school in an affordable way,” said Jules Polonetsky, who has a daughter at Berman Academy and a son at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Polonetsky definitely misses the pilot program. “Now we do a lot of driving,” he said. “The loss of [the busing program] has definitely added to traffic congestion” in the already-congested area around Seven Locks Road in Potomac, he said.
Maury Litwack, a former Silver Spring, Maryland resident and the director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union, has been working for several years to provide private school students the same busing rights as their counterparts in public schools.
“Over a dozen states around the country provide transportation as a basic right to public and private school children,” Litwak said. “It’s a safety issue. It’s also an environmental issue, and it’s a common sense issue.”
Nearby states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey provide busing to private, non-profit schools, but Maryland does not–– yet all parents, regardless of where they choose to send their children for schooling, must pay school taxes.
The Orthodox Union was “very pleased the County launched a program and are still responsive,” said Litwak, but then the council reduced funding for the program with barely any warning and “without enough information or enough voices from those receiving it.”
He is urging everyone who appreciated the program to call and meet with county officials to let them know how important the program is.
For Pearl Rawson of Potomac, Maryland, the end of the busing program meant somehow getting her three daughters to and from Berman while both she and her husband work at full time jobs.
Due to the one-hour difference between the end of the school day for lower school and upper schools students at Berman–– their girls are in first, fourth and seventh grade, respectively–– Rawson and her husband need to travel to and from the Rockville school three times a day. And this does not include the additional trips for basketball practice and games.
The pilot program “was amazing,” said Rawson. Now, she spends time working out carpool schedules with two other families, and her husband does the driving.
Berman does offer a bus, but for three kids it is expensive, she said. The Rawsons pay for their three daughters to use it only on Friday afternoons because it is such a busy day.
With fewer students being bused to and from school, congestion has definitely gotten worse, said Jennifer Zukerman, development director at Berman.
Berman administrators and parents were “extremely disappointed” when the pilot program ended, she said, but she is optimistic a new county council and executive director will review the pilot program and hopefully bring it back.
Litwak is less charitable. “The county got away with not finishing the program,” he said. “They know the need and have not continued to work on this issue in a meaningful fashion.”
“The community has tasted what busing is like,” and now they need to fight for it, he said.
And now is the time to do so, according to several people interviewed for this article.
Sam Melamed, co-chair of advocacy in Maryland for the Orthodox Union and a parent of three children in Jewish day schools, pointed out that because county residents voted for term limits in November of last year, four council members and the county executive cannot seek reelection. The significant shift in representation will represent an opportunity to put the issue back on the table.
Melamed and other parents plan to make busing to private schools a major issue in the upcoming local elections. “It’s a critical issue for young families in our community,” he said.
“It’s definitely going to impact who we are going to support,” he added.
“It’s safe to say for a large part of the day school community, there is a lot of frustration. We had it and then it was taken away,” he said of the pilot program.
Melamed called the lack of busing “a quality of life issue.” Currently, there are “a hundred idling mini vans,” picking up and dropping off students during rush hour by parents with hectic schedules, he noted.
Ira Ungar, who has two students at Berman, worked hard to get the pilot program off the ground. Parents in Kemp Mill also were a big help by making it known how important a bus would be for them, he said.
He called the program a success, saving parents money and time and keeping cars off county roads while not costing the county very much money.
“It’s to the county’s advantage to get those mini vans off the roads,” he said.
However, the county is no longer actively trying to work out a solution.
John Matthews, the county’s former director of transportation, is the consultant the County hired to investigate several alternatives. He issued a report awhile back, but “without funding,” he said it just wasn’t viable to use public school buses at private schools.
Another problem was the school board’s decision to change school starting times, eliminating some of the time that the buses and drivers were available, he said.
Matthews noted that private schools draw students from all over the county, making it difficult to come up with a route that was economically feasible.
However, he said, “the Jewish community tends to have a tight community, focused around synagogues,” making it easier to pick students up at just a few bus spots.
According to his study that was completed in the Fall of 2016, parents aren’t willing to pay more than one dollar to a $1.25 each way, and that is not possible without county funding. Parents also don’t want their students to sit on a bus for more than an hour at a time, according to his study.
Matthews said he really hasn’t worked on the issue since he completed his report.
The Torah School currently is paying to rent one school bus so its students can get home in the late afternoons on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Parents are charged $350 per child per afternoon, he said.
Because it took a while to work out this program, many parents had already designed carpools and decided not to participate. Therefore, the Torah School has had to subsidize the program.
“We are losing money on it,” said Rabbi Yossie Charner, director of development.
However, he said, the cost of the county-provided bus is still cheaper than renting a private bus as the county only charges the school for the bus driver’s time and gas.
“I personally have spent many, many hours working with the county,” Charner said, adding that he already is trying to renew the rental program and possibly adding a morning run for the 2017-2018 school year.
“We want to be positive. We want them to know we are appreciative,” Charner said. “We’d love to have busing back.”
Under the pilot program, three buses transported Torah School students in Kemp Mill, Olney, White Oak, Rockville and Potomac.
Since it ended, “Parents have been miserable, because they have to carpool,” he said. Most of the parents are working and already pay tuition.
If parents of private school students speak out during local elections, Litwack believes there is a chance to get those buses back.
“The OU’s model of advocacy is very reliant on an active group of parents and activists engaged on these issues,” he said. “We are more than happy to continue to work on this, but this needs to start with a vocal group of parents speaking to their local and state elected officials on what they can do to help the nonpublic school community.”
With the support of parents, said Litwak, the Orthodox Union “is certainly able to take up the torch.”
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.