Fighting just to get to school each day

April 28, 2010

Cindy Klumb, an activist and parent in New York City, describes the bureaucracy involved in something as simple as trying to get her son to and from school each day.

NOT THAT anyone in their right mind would expect that the New York City Board of Education bureaucracy would actually put a student's needs before policy, but I thought I would put aside my skepticism and try anyway.

The nearest corner to our house is 1.48 miles from my son Luke's high school. The cut-off for a free student MetroCard is 1.5 miles. Just to put this into perspective; I did the math and .02 miles is 35.2 yards, not even half the length of a football field. If they measured from our front door, we would probably meet the 1.5 mile requirement.

Our Brooklyn neighborhood is over-run with construction projects. Avenue V and 27th Avenue are being torn up to put in new sewer lines. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is working on the underside of the D-train tracks that run along Stillwell Avenue. At least half or more of my son's journey to school is through major construction.

Traffic patterns change often and, while the construction crews are cognizant of the cars, they don't pay much attention to pedestrians. After my son was almost run over by a cement truck, I decided to see if I could get a hazardous variance. With a MetroCard, he could walk in the opposite direction away from the construction.

While $4.50 a day doesn't sound like much, multiply it by 20 days a month and we are talking about a minimum $90 a month cost for transportation to school, that he should be getting for free. Luke qualifies for a half-fare bus pass, but would have to walk about 5 blocks through the sewer construction zone to get to the nearest bus that goes anywhere near his school, not a much of a solution.

I sent in a request for a hazardous variance with photographs of the construction and my concerns about my son's safety. It seemed like a simple process and request.

The response I received was a block-by-block analysis of stop signs, stoplights and crosswalks--no mention of the construction hazards. The conclusion was that if he just crosses Stillwell Avenue at Avenue V and 27th Avenue, he will have an unobstructed sidewalk.

Yes and no. Heavy construction vehicles move in and out of these intersections all day long. Hence the problem. He still has to dodge heavy equipment for most of the way to arrive safely at school.

My son also has suffered in the past from asthma and I worry about all the dust and pollution during the hot humid months of summer. (Luke's high school is a year-round program.)

THE RESPONSE I received states that the latest statistical data from the 60th precinct does not classify any crossing as "accident prone." Thankfully no one's child has been injured or killed up to this point. There are two other high schools adjacent to the construction. There are also two elementary schools close by--so my son is not the only student at risk.

The letter I received ends with this quote "If a city school district elects to provide transportation, the service must be offered equally to all. Therefore a school district cannot legally provide transportation to some students because there is space available and deny the service to others because there is no space available." The next paragraph goes on to say that there is insufficient space on yellow school buses.

I am still tying to figure this part out, wouldn't this support his right to have free transportation to school?

The inspector was sent out not to see if my child was in any danger, but to find a reason to refuse the variance.

The decision can be appealed, but the process is very complicated. A petition has to be filed with the State Commissioner of Education in Albany within 30 days. Evidence has to be included, and then all parties have to be served with proof of service. There is a $20 filing fee. I have very little reason to expect that the appeal decision would be any different.

My son's high school is supportive and the principal is trying to see what she can do, but the Office of Pupil Transportation makes the decision without any input from the school or the parents in a particular school or neighborhood. The school enters an address and the decision is solely based on the distance, without any other considerations.

New York City public schools are run more like a corporation than a public service. Students come in last place when it comes to the Board of Education's priorities.

The MTA recently proposed cutting the free student MetroCard program as part of their efforts to balance their budget. Students, parents and educators were able to successfully fight back for now. The decision was delayed until this June.

This may very well be a moot point by next September, with thousands of parents in all five boroughs scrambling to find alternative and affordable ways to get their children to school next year.

It is this kind of experience that reinforces why I am a revolutionary socialist. The decision as who should receive free transportation to school or any other publicly funded services should be made democratically by the people who are actually affected by the decision, not by some brain-dead bureaucrat who is far removed from the situation and completely untouched by it.

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