The squeeze on local school districts has been tightening for many years. The state tried to limit increases in property taxes that were already the nation’s highest, more than half of which go to public schools. Cuts and revisions to New Jersey’s aid to school districts also left many with substantially less money.
And since it’s nearly impossible to reduce spending on unionized teacher salaries, benefits and pensions, school districts have cut elsewhere. Over the past decade, that has largely eliminated so-called “courtesy busing” for the convenience of families or the safety of students. (State law requires busing for those who live 2 to 2.5 miles or more from their school.)
When the New Jersey Safe Routes to School Resource Center at Rutgers analyzed the issue in 2012, its “Dwindling Budgets Bring Busing Blues” report said 30% of districts already had cut back on courtesy busing. Now many more have.
This year, the loss is being felt in Somers Point. Its school board followed some of the report’s recommendations, starting to phase in the end of busing last year and encouraging families and their friends to work together to drive children to schools.
But now the buses are gone, some parents are unable to drive kids to school, and they are left to walk or bicycle along roads that clearly aren’t safe for pedestrians and cyclists, let alone young ones.
The school district has proposed other recommended strategies, including busing students by subscription (which, since there’s no regular busing in Somers Point, would cost $1,100 per family per year); expanding before-school care to accommodate earlier drop-offs; and a possible referendum next year seeking voter approval to exceed the budget cap to cover the cost of courtesy busing again.
The district is taking the right approach and seems to be offering the best options available for a difficult situation.
But too bad Somers Point schools were put in this situation by inadequate pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure that leaves not just students but anyone not in a motor vehicle at unreasonable risk.
One parent, sadly describing her child’s path to school, said, “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.”
Under state law, municipalities are responsible for the safety along public roadways and walkways. It is up to them to adequately install sidewalks, traffic signals and signs, and paint crosswalks. And by N.J. statute, municipalities appoint crossing guards, who are supervised by local law enforcement.
Unfortunately, many municipalities haven’t responded adequately to the vast increase in car and truck traffic over the years, nor the rise in distracted driving and the surge in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. People who used to get their exercise in the open air have been forced indoors and onto machines that simulate the walking, running and cycling they used to do safely in public.
Government at all levels realized, belatedly, that infrastructure must accommodate non-motorized movement. Somers Point itself has a grand plan to extend its bike and pedestrian path in the direction of many of the students now in need. Too bad it and much more weren’t done years ago when the harms of the traffic crush already were obvious.
Remember when most schoolchildren walked or biked to school safely on local roads with light traffic? Communities could have remained that safe and welcoming to the people living in them if that had been a goal of municipal and transportation planners.