Rallying to get Staten Island kids back on the bus

Andrew J Lanza

September 08, 2010

Staten Island Advance photo/Hilton Flores

From the Staten Island Advance: http://blog.silive.com/latest_news/print.html?entry=/2010/09/rallying_to_get_staten_island.html


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- The parents of nearly 3,000 Staten Island seventh and eighth graders scrambled earlier tonight to figure out how to get their kids to school tomorrow, which marks the first day they're banned from yellow school bus service.

To protest the budget cuts that eliminated the service for 11 and 12 year olds, several hundred parents, teachers, students and representatives from the school bus drivers' union gathered for a rally earlier this evening on the steps of Paulo Intermediate School in Huguenot. The rally was hosted by City Councilman Vincent Ignizio and the borough's elected officials.

It's a question of fairness, and ensuring Staten Islanders get the services they rely on and deserve, the politicians said. Students face transportation challenges unique to this borough, with a dearth of public bus service that can require several transfers to get to school, or long walks on busy streets, including some that lack sidewalks.

Parents at the rally said they fear for their kids' safety, and some expressed concern about sexual predators that live in their neighborhoods.

Said Assemblyman Lou Tobacco: "It's very simple. It's fundamental. We were taught it in kindergarten. Safety first."

"We want to be on the bus, not under the bus," said City Councilwoman Debi Rose.

Several parents who have both sixth and eighth graders said it will make no sense to drive their older child to school while the younger one can still take the bus. If more parents start driving the sixth graders to school, too, it will mean more unnecessarily empty bus seats, which will defeat the purpose of saving money. In addition, some said the move will mean more traffic around schools as parents who are able will start driving their kids.

For kids whose parents aren't able to drive them, some said it will mean taking the city bus, or a long walk to school in some neighborhoods that don't have sidewalks on every street.

 "I'm just here because I don't want to have to attend another funeral," said Monsignor Jeff Conway of Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C. Church in Huguenot, who spoke of attending the funeral for Anthony Rizzo, a 16-year-old high school student who was hit by a car on his way to school last June. "It happens to high school kids," he said. "If they're in danger, sixth, seventh and eighth graders are in more danger."

Ignizio led the crowd in a chant, "It's about safety, not about spending!" The energized crowd waved signs with sayings like "Our safety is not for sale," and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" blared over a loudspeaker.

The rally came hours after a last-ditch effort to force the city to provide the bus service fell short when a state Supreme Court judge declined to issue another temporary restraining order.

State Supreme Court Justice John Fusco said he did not have the authority to overturn a decision by the state Appellate Court to throw out a temporary restraining he ordered on Aug. 16.

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city -- led by Ignizio (R- South Shore) and including a half dozen parents -- were hoping to exploit a loophole in the language of the Appellate Court ruling. They also wanted to speed up the start of the trial, which is scheduled for Monday.

The plaintiffs lost both arguments, but they did gain some traction in the bigger legal battle when Fusco ordered the city to turn over any correspondence between Department of Education (DOE) officials and Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor for education and community development, regarding cuts to the yellow bus service. Attorneys for the city refused, claiming those are "privileged" documents.

Fusco, who at times appeared annoyed during the two-hour hearing at the former Stapleton home port this morning, called the city's resistance "suspicious."

Queens City Councilman Eric A. Ulrich also petitioned the court today to add his name to the lawsuit -- and some other Council members may join him when the trial starts Monday. Fusco intends to decide on Thursday whether they have standing on the matter.

The battle over bus service began in May, when the Advance first reported the DOE planned to end yellow bus service for about 4,600 students citywide. Though the department normally provides bus service to students only through sixth grade, 42 years ago it granted a variance to seventh- and eighth-graders at 70 schools where the options in respect to public transportation are limited.