SOMERS POINT — A sidewalk stretches north along Mays Landing Road, but ends abruptly after the corner shopping center.
The rest of the walk along Route 9 toward the Jordan Road School has little to no shoulder and sporadic stretches of sidewalk until the road intersects with Laurel Drive.
Instead of taking that route, Alafia Foster’s son cuts across the nearby Greate Bay County Club golf course to get to school. It's faster and safer than walking along the street, she said.
Foster and about 80 other families in the Somers Point Village apartments and surrounding neighborhoods didn’t have this problem last year, but as the district finalized the elimination of courtesy busing that began in 2018, they find themselves without a bus to school.
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“As you can see, there’s just a few inches of a shoulder there, there’s no sidewalk, there’s no lighting. We didn’t get a crossing guard added when they took our bus away, so there’s no safe way for my kids to get out of the neighborhood,” parent Amy Sturgis told the school board Thursday.
For more than a decade, many schools in the region have been grappling with tight budgets, forcing them to reconsider what is known as courtesy busing — busing students not mandated by the state due to their proximity to the school.
Sturgis, who lives in a neighborhood called Hickory Point, cannot drive her kids to school in the morning because of her work schedule, but she doesn’t feel comfortable having them walk in areas a previous Somers Point bicycle study deemed as the most unsafe in the city.
“We have friends helping us out trying to get our kids safely to school so they don’t die on the street,” she said.
State law says schools are not required to offering busing for elementary students inside a 2-mile radius and high school students inside a 2.5-mile radius from their school.
During a multiyear redistricting process, Somers Point decided to eliminate its busing due to an anticipated loss of state aid over the next five years because of changes to the school funding formula.
Last year, the district of 890 students continued to bus about 100 children from various parts of the city where sidewalks were sparse or traffic was heavy, including Mays Landing Road. This year, that busing was also eliminated.
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Somers Point is following in the footsteps of many neighboring towns, including Northfield and Linwood, which do not offer courtesy busing for students. Linwood does offer subscription busing for a fee.
Similarly, Absecon does not offer courtesy busing, and Superintendent Dan Dooley said he has not had any major issues since coming to the district two years ago. He said more than half of the 900 students are dropped off by car and that the district offers subscription busing at a cost of $150 for the year, but students must be picked up at existing bus stops. Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are not charged for this service.
“That’s probably why we don’t get a whole lot of complaints about it,” Dooley said. “It’s been something that the people of Absecon have learned. It’s just what we do. We haven't had courtesy busing.”
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Like Somers Point, Galloway Township was also forced to scale back busing due to budget constraints. That was about a decade ago, and since then some of the busing was brought back in areas deemed too dangerous to walk from, Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said.
Somers Point Superintendent Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder said it was a tough decision but one that had to be made.
After hearing about parents' complaints through social media, CarneyRay-Yoder held a transportation meeting Monday and presented two ideas to handle parents' requests — subscription busing at $1,100 per family for the year, or a 2020 referendum to add the cost of busing to the district budget over the 2% tax cap. The district also is considering expanding the hours of its before-care program to allow parents who work early to drive their children to school.
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“I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to hear what the parents’ concerns were,” CarneyRay-Yoder said. “We’re going to look at as many options as possible.”
Board President Staci Endicott said eliminating busing was never meant to encourage all students to walk to school, and said the district is not endorsing the entire community as safe to walk.
She said it is up to parents what routes are safe for students to walk, and that parents may have to make other arrangements.
Endicott said the district has been pushing using a carpool app and encouraging parents to work with friends and family to take shifts driving students to school.
CarneyRay-Yoder said the district is also trying to work with the county and the state, both of which have upcoming road projects in town, to have sidewalks and bike paths completed as soon as possible.
“We’re trying to help and collaborate with people to get other options for their families because that’s important,” she said.