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Updated: BOE approves policy revision that limits transportation to students with variances

Schools

by Joanne Kountourakis | Fri, Feb 23 2024

A draft policy change discussed at the February 16 BOE meeting could, if adopted, remove transportation currently provided to district students with variances to attend schools outside of their attendance zones.

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Updated Friday, March 15, 5:50pm 
The following language in the district’s Student Transportation Services policy was approved after a second read by the board of education at the end of its March 14 meeting:

“...transportation for students to a school other than where their attendance zone is located will only be provided if it is done in furtherance of a student’s Individualized Educational Plan or if the School District’s administration determines that the request for a transfer is educationally necessary.”

The revised policy removes the availability of transportation to students who have received a variance to attend a district school other than their home school. The policy change will not affect special education students placed at a school outside of their attendance zone pursuant to an IEP. The district has also grandfathered in (and will allow transportation for) students entering eighth grade for the 2024-2025 year who have been previously granted an inter-school pupil transfer.

According to school officials, families with current variances will be notified directly of this change.

An updated Attendance Zone policy, also approved last night, requires that all requests for a variance be submitted no later than April 1 of the preceding school year (though the deadline for the 2024-25 school year has been extended to May 1). Requests must be submitted on an annual basis; students attending schools other than their home schools due to IEP/ENL programming do not need to request a variance.

The original article as first published in the Northport Journal is below.


A proposed change to the Northport-East Northport school district’s Student Transportation Services policy could limit the availability of transportation to students who have received a variance to attend a district school outside of their attendance zones. 

The draft revised policies were discussed at the February 16 board of education meeting, at which parts of the proposed 2024-2025 budget were also presented, including a budget deficit of $3.8M. 

There are currently 154 students granted variances to attend district schools other than their designated school of attendance, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Support Services Louis Bonadonna said at the meeting. Of those students, 137 receive transportation – specifically school buses and vans – paid for by the district. 

The draft policy changes discussed last Thursday were brought forth by the district’s Policy Committee and would, if adopted, set an annual deadline of April 1 for families to submit a variance request while also limiting which students are entitled to transportation if that variance is granted. 

“When you take a look at our current budget deficit that we showed you tonight, it costs us approximately $400,000 a year to provide this service to families that they're not legally entitled to,” Superintendent Dave Moyer said of the transportation currently being provided to students with variances, before recommending that the service be discontinued. “That's my recommendation,” he said. “If the board doesn’t feel that way, so be it. But that’s the primary recommended change in this policy other than the application date.”

Assistant Superintendent of Business Bob Howard clarified the actual cost of transportation services for these inter-school pupil transfers to be $326,000.  

A first read of the policy change at the meeting included the following addition, notwithstanding standard distance limitations for busing already in place: “Transportation for students to a school other than where their attendance zone is located will only be provided if it is done in furtherance of a student’s Individualized Educational Plan [IEP] or if the School District’s administration determines that the request for a transfer is educationally necessary.”

The proposed policy change would not affect special education students placed at a school outside of their attendance zone pursuant to an IEP. The district would also provide those students entering eighth grade for the 2024-2025 year who have been previously granted an inter-school pupil transfer the transportation they’ve always had as middle schoolers. (These students were moving to the fifth grade during the reorganization; the district made a commitment to let them finish middle school in the school they requested.)

District attorney Steven Goodstadt, a partner with Ingerman Smith, LLC, admitted that the process of granting variances in the recent past has not been streamlined, with no timeframe in which to request a variance in place. Incorporating a deadline of April 1 into the policy will make planning less difficult, he said.

As far as the variances granted in recent years, which have steadily increased in number since the reorganization and closing of two elementary schools in 2021, Goodstadt said: “I am aware that when the elementary schools closed down, the board was lenient with regards to transfers to different buildings for various reasons. But at the same point, the cost of transportation has gone up because of these transfers.”

Superintendent Moyer did assure that no changes to the deliberation process regarding a variance request itself would occur; when a request is entertained, the same criteria would be considered in granting the request as now, he said. 

The primary change, if the policy change is adopted, would be to grandfather in next year’s eighth grade students so they can finish middle school with the transportation currently provided. However the district would not provide transportation for other non-IEP students whose request to attend a school outside of their attendance zone is granted. 

According to Bonadonna, of the 154 students with variances right now, 103 attend middle school, with 34 moving up to eighth grade next year. A further breakdown showed that 42 students zoned for East Northport Middle School (ENMS) currently attend Northport Middle School (NMS) and 61 students zoned for NMS go to ENMS. Of those students, 24 will be attending high school next year, leaving less than 100 families who would have to reapply for variances every year and, should they receive them, shoulder responsibility for transportation themselves. 

The present “era of fiscal examination” prompted Trustee Carol Taylor to suggest fading variances out completely, once next year’s eighth graders are in high school. 

“Because unless there’s a tremendously extenuating circumstance for children to just not be in their zoned school – I don’t know too many school districts who are as lenient and as gracious, and I’m happy that we’re gracious and all – but it’s a fiscal reality and I think it’s something that, maybe in a year from now, we look at again and see if we can start to fade this.”

Trustee Donna McNaughton brought up a “sibling factor,” in which it would have to be decided if siblings of next year’s eighth graders, or those with a brother or sister with an IEP, would be afforded transportation by the district should they choose to go to school together.  

Fellow board member Alison Noonan wondered if removing the option of transportation would lead to an equity issue, if families who are unable to supply transportation are therefore not afforded the same choices and opportunities as those who can.

“As sympathetic as I am to that, I think when you think of equity, the choice that is being made, the burden comes on the taxpayer, which ordinarily wouldn’t be there,” Board of Education President Larry Licopoli responded. “That’s not fair in terms of the larger picture. While I understand the issue that you're talking about, I don’t know if it applies given what the policy is actually recommending…. The burden shouldn’t be put on the taxpayer for an individual parent's choice.”

Nothing final yet…
The policy changes as discussed at last week’s BOE meeting were submitted for a second read, which will be done at a future board of education meeting. After a second read, the board can make a decision regarding whether to adopt the changes or not, approve the changes with certain revisions made during the meeting, or table the revisions should board members need more time to discuss them.

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