Published: Tuesday, April 03, 2012, 6:00 AM By Jill Jorgensen
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- At the start of the school year, the fight for yellow bus service might have seemed hopeless.
On the first day of class in September -- two years after a variance allowing bus service for seventh- and eighth-graders was yanked, three months after a seventh-grader was killed walking to a city bus, and two months after a lawsuit to restore service was tossed out of court -- schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters at Susan Wagner High School it wasn't going to happen.
That day he blamed "like circumstances," a clause in state education law he said would force the city to offer bus service across the five boroughs if they gave it to Staten Island and parts of Queens, as they had for decades.
But yesterday, after the state legislature unanimously passed a bipartisan bill to exempt New York City from the like circumstances clause, Walcott was at Laurie Intermediate School in New Springville with a very different message.
"One of the issues for us was 'like circumstances,'" Walcott said as he stood with borough elected officials. "Through the excellent teamwork of all these individuals, we've been able to address that issue and as a result I'm here to announce that starting this September, seventh and eighth graders in the borough of Staten Island, and also those parts of Queens, will be eligible to take the yellow school buses."
Intermediate school students who were eligible for the bus service before the city revoked the variance will be able to ride the buses again -- and the vast majority of schools and students affected are on Staten Island, with some in the Breezy Point and College Point sections of Queens. The list of schools covered by the variance includes all of Staten Island's public intermediate schools, and a slew of private and parochial schools serving grades seven and eight.
Walcott praised state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) and Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island), who spearheaded the bill, for their "strong advocacy" and putting together legislation that "balanced a variety of needs" and allowed for service to be restored.
The department is committed to finding funding for the services, and Walcott noted state lawmakers are sending more education funding to New York City this year.
"While we're not in great financial shape, we're in better financial shape than when we started talking about this issue," Walcott said yesterday.
When asked if he thought rescinding the bus service had been a mistake, Walcott said he doesn't look to the past, but to the future, and said he was visiting Staten Island on a positive note yesterday.
Walcott also objected to the idea that the department had "softened" its attitude, saying like circumstances had been the issue and with it addressed, change was possible.
It wasn't a matter of softening as much as it was collaborating, Walcott said -- and collaboration was a theme of many of those lawmakers who spoke yesterday.
Lanza said the decision to cut the yellow bus service was likely motivated by a desire to make sure services were being delivered to taxpayers efficiently -- but those on the ground in Staten Island were able to see the true need for the bus service in a city whose landscape is as diverse as its people.
"You've got the skyscrapers of Park Avenue and you've got the backyards of Staten Island," Lanza said.
He credited the Department of Education for recognizing they ought to restore the variance and working with them to draft the best legislation for actually getting the service back. Other lawmakers in attendance at the press conference -- Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, state Sen. Diane Savino, City Councilmen James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, and Borough President James Molinaro -- also lauded the change, citing the lack of public transportation and sidewalks, leaving children unsafe on their walks to school. City Councilwoman Debi Rose also issued a statement in support of the change.
After the press conference, Community Education Council 31 vice president Michael Reilly said he was "ecstatic." The CEC, a group of parents elected by other parents to advise the city on educational policy, has been fighting for years to restore service.
But Sean Rotkowitz, district representative for the United Federation of Teachers, had a more reserved reaction.
"I think it's just a little hypocritical, perhaps, that the chancellor and the same Board of Education that took away the service is now running around patting itself on the back that we can now reinstate service," he said.
He also said the best scenario would be to start running buses today.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said service will begin next year because that's when funding will begin.