HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Officials from two local school districts agreed Thursday to try to work out a dispute over recent consolidation of bus routes without court intervention.
Last week, Atlantic County Institute of Technology filed for relief from the state commissioner of education after Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District made changes to bus routes that ACIT officials claim moved some students’ bus stops four miles from their home as a way to discourage enrollment.
“The parties are working with each other to achieve an amicable result,” said ACIT attorney Keith Davis of Nehmad, Perillo and Davis of Egg Harbor Township.
Officials from ACIT and the Greater Egg Harbor Regional district met before Administrative Law Judge John Kennedy in Atlantic City on Thursday to make their arguments, according Davis.
ACIT’s petition filed Sept. 1 claims Greater Egg Harbor Regional’s bus route change is “directly retaliating against ACIT due to the continued loss of students from the district to the ACIT,” to which they must pay tuition.
Greater Egg Harbor Regional denied the claims in its response.
“The nine elected members of the board remain answerable to their constituents, the parents of the district, and ACIT lacks standing to attempt to pursue claims in their name,” Greater Egg Harbor Regional’s response stated.
It also stated that the district reinstating old routes “would result in layoffs of teachers, support personnel, and further reductions in educational programs in the district.”
ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther said he has received complaints from nearly 100 families concerned about a move this summer by the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District to consolidate bus routes for the county vocational high school, mainly due to safety, as some of the stops are poorly lit or on roads with no sidewalks. Greater Egg Harbor’s response said they have received three.
Parent Cheryl Bitondo of Mullica Township, whose stepchildren attend ACIT, said she received a letter in the summer from Greater Egg Harbor Regional regarding the change in the bus routes, but didn’t know where the stop would be until late August. Bitondo said she was shocked when she learned her stepson and stepdaughter’s new bus stop is on a road with very little street lights and no sidewalks 1¼ miles away from her home. The pick-up time, she said, is 6:15 a.m.
“The last bus stop was in front of our house,” said Bitondo, 47. “I believe that Greater Egg Harbor decided not to take the safety of the children into hand when they did this. I think it was all financial.”
She said due to safety concerns, she or her husband will have to take their kids to the bus stop.
Tom Grossi, Greater Egg Harbor Regional business administrator, said state law allows for high school students to walk up to 2½ miles, but denied that the stop locations are excessive.
“The amount of distance these stops are from their homes vary depending on where they live and proximity to other students, but I can guarantee you that no student’s bus stop is 4 miles from their home,” Grossi said in a email.
The decision to consolidate routes was made to save $150,000 in the 2017-18 operating budget, similar to what was done to bus routes for choice, charter and nonpublic school students, according to the district.
ACIT was seeking to have the 2016-17 bus routes restored.
“It’s a major change that was not discussed with the administration from ACIT nor the parents who would be affected by this change,” Guenther said.
ACIT’s petition claimed tension between the two entities was caused by the rising cost of tuition at ACIT. The Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District and ACIT agreed on a deferred tuition plan earlier this year when Greater Egg Harbor informed ACIT it could not meet its tuition obligation.
In the spring, as the Greater Egg Harbor Regional school board was discussing its budget, board members expressed concern over tuition costs at ACIT and the effect on the regional high school district. Enrollment at ACIT in 2016 was 1,494 students. Of that, more than 400 students are from the Greater Egg Harbor Regional sending districts. The district’s tuition obligation in 2017-18 is projected at $3.1 million.
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District serves students in Mullica, Galloway and Hamilton townships, Egg Harbor City and Port Republic. All Atlantic County students have a legal right to apply to attend the county vocational school. Their sending districts have a legal obligation to pay for transportation for students who live more than 2½ miles from the school.
Greater Egg Harbor Regional’s response said the tuition is just one of many financial constraints on the district including declining school enrollment and statutory limitations on tax increases.
In the 2017-18 budget, Greater Egg Harbor Regional district cut operating costs by $4.7 million, reducing its budget $1.6 million from the previous year. Cuts were made across the board, including $2.8 million in staffing and personnel, according to the district’s response.