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Baldwin school busing plan up for May 21 vote

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On West End Avenue in Baldwin, it takes a village to get children to school. Resident Yvonne Salerno said she and her neighbors started a carpooling program in which parents drive children to school in the morning and, in some cases, high schoolers drive them home at the end of the day.

Because Baldwin elementary schools start later than the high school, younger children are dropped off at neighbors’ houses, where they wait for their rides to school. “All the different schedules for the different schools don’t make it easy,” Salerno said.

For six years, hundreds of Baldwin parents have had to find ways to get their children to school, because bus service has been unavailable to them. In 2013, a majority of voters approved a referendum to extend the distance that elementary and high school students must live from their schools to receive busing from 1 and 1.5 miles, respectively, to 2 miles. The distance for middle school students was changed from 1.25 miles to 1.5.

The measure affected about 1,000 students, and at the time, district officials anticipated $1 million in savings. But those savings were never realized, and parents have said the transportation cuts have put a strain on their morning routines.

“I’m a working parent, and I have to worry about my children crossing Merrick Road and Sunrise Highway to get to the high school,” Baldwinite Lynda Lignowski said.

Next school year, however, hundreds of Baldwinites may be able to see their children get on school buses again. When they vote on the school district’s proposed 2019-20 budget on May 21, residents will be asked if the minimum distance for busing should be reduced from 2 to 1.5 miles for elementary and high school students. The distance for middle school students would not change.

If a majority of voters were to approve the proposition, it would add about $151,000 in transportation costs to the proposed $134 million spending plan, according to district officials.

Salerno and Lignowski both said they hoped voters would approve the proposition. “I’m going to be ecstatic if they pass this,” Salerno said.

Lignowski said the measure is about students’ safety. “I just want to make sure they get to school OK,” she said.

The wheels on the bus . . .

When the 2013 busing referendum was passed, by a 614-416 vote, Baldwin was facing financial constraints due to shrinking state aid and unfunded mandates, among other expenses, and was looking to save money. A referendum was necessary, because the Board of Education and district officials could not make changes to the transportation formula without the approval of a majority of voters.

The district anticipated $1 million in savings, but that number was never achieved. That’s because the start time for BMS was changed in September 2013 to 48 minutes after BHS. Prior to that, there had been enough of a gap so the buses that dropped off high schoolers could go back out to pick up middle schoolers.

In 2015, officials said, the referendum created large-scale savings, but did not provide an exact number.

Since then, the district has found other ways to save money on transportation, including rerouting buses to ensure efficient pickup and drop-off of students, reducing the number of buses needed, a strategy that began in 2015.

Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi said the budget proposition would not strain the district’s finances. “The Baldwin School District has found a way to provide additional resources to our students and families at a minimal cost,” she wrote in an email. “The busing referendum is a win for everyone.”

District officials said that other cost-saving measures include paperless report cards and progress reports (saving money on postage and paper supplies), the installation of LED lighting district-wide, and state and federal reimbursement for free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs.

Squeaky wheels get the grease

Salerno said she wasn’t privy to the district’s politics or news at the time of the 2013 referendum, but quickly became involved after it was approved.

“I could see the bus pull up across the street from my house when we first moved in,” she said, “and now all of a sudden I didn’t have it.”

Salerno, who is now president of the Meadow Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, said she has been rallying parents to call for a change to the mileage limits for years. “There was a need to get this done,” she said.

Lignowski said her children previously received busing, but fell short of being eligible after the referendum was passed. “I’ve been making a big stink about this for years,” she said, “and so have a lot of other parents. I pay my taxes. I should be able to have my children be bused.”

She said she worked for months to collect signatures on a petition calling for the mileage limit to be reduced, only to be told that another referendum was approved by the Board of Education. “So, I did all this work for nothing really,” she said with a laugh. “I stood outside meetings, sports games, school events, you name it.”

Still, she said she is pleased that there is a chance that her children and others will be able to board a bus in the mornings and afternoons. “It’s quite a long walk for them,” she said. “And now we have people on their phones while driving.”

The budget vote will take place May 21 at Baldwin High School, 841 Ethel T. Kloberg Drive, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Residents will also vote for three candidates running for two open seats on the Board of Education: incumbent Susan Cools, Tom Smyth and Patricia Hinds-Mason.

Joel Press, a two-term trustee who served as the board president in 2018-19, will not run for re-election. (See profiles of all the candidates on Page 6.)

Additionally, Baldwinites will vote on the Baldwin Public Library’s proposed 2019-20 budget. The library system is proposing a $4,618,100 budget, a $111,728 increase over the current one.

Trustee Joseph Carroll is running unopposed for his seat on the board of trustees, BPL Executive Assistant Debbie Kelly said.