A Secaucus community shuttle program that has been transporting hundreds of middle and high school aged children to school in the mornings for 10 years has drawn criticism recently from school board trustees and school administrators concerned about the lack of safety equipment on the buses. Some are also concerned about adults boarding the white community shuttle alongside children, and question the legality of the use of such buses.
The community shuttle program for students has been operating since 2002. Officials and the town attorney say it is entirely legal. But residents apparently are focusing on the service as a side issue to debates swirling between the mayor and certain school board trustees over who gets bused to school, by what entity, and why.
“State law says children cannot be bused to and from school in anything other than a yellow school bus,” said School Board Trustee Mary Ann Weiner during the October school board meeting.
The white municipal buses were used to transport elementary school children from the Creekside Manor development last year, and approximately 350 adolescents rely on the white bus to get to and from the high school. These children all live within a two-mile radius of the school, so by law the school administration is prohibited from busing them.
“Anybody can ride the bus.” – David Drumeler
No flashing lights or stop sign
Drumeler said the town was required to remove all safety equipment such as the pop-out stop sign and flashing lights before using the vehicle.
“We can’t put red flashing lights on it because it is not a school bus,” said Drumeler. “We are required to take the lights off when the bus gets decommissioned.”
The bus is also painted white so that no one confuses it for a yellow school bus.
“It is not illegal,” said Drumeler last week. “We are not prohibited from doing it.”
The white bus travels a loop through town, picks up teens near the high school in the morning, and picks up children from after-school activities and the recreation center.
“This is dangerous,” said School Board Trustee Dora Marra during the school board meeting. “White buses can’t go on school grounds.” She pointed out that the buses drop off children on Millridge Road instead of the front of the high school.
“The community has to realize that if there is an accident you cannot come to the Board of Education thinking we were negligent,” said Weiner. She said last week she thinks parents need to be aware that the buses are not equipped with safety equipment.
“Parents should have knowledge before they make an educated decision for their children,” said Weiner. “People drive much more cautiously when they see a school bus.”
Adults on the bus
Huber Street Elementary School Principal Linda Wilhelm said at the October school board meeting that she saw a fourth grade student on the white bus that also had an adult passenger on board.
“I feel responsible because the child is on the bus with adults,” said Wilhelm.
Weiner and Marra both said they observed an adult one morning getting on the white bus along with children.
“It looked like there was an adult riding on the bus and we couldn’t understand who this adult was,” said Weiner. “I don’t know if both buses were only for children or anyone who needs to get to the other side of town.”
“Anybody can ride the bus,” said Drumeler. “These are not school buses.”
What rules govern white buses?
Weiner admitted that she didn’t know what the rules and regulations are for the white municipal buses. State laws define school buses as motor vehicles operated by, or under contract with, a public or governmental agency, or religious or other charitable organization or corporation, or privately operated for the transportation of children to or from school for secular or religious education.
Buses which transport children to and from school, or a school-connected activity like day camp, must comply with state motor vehicle regulations issued by either the Department of Education or the Department of Human Services.
Drumeler said that the municipality was not governed by the state education regulations outlined in Title 18A because the municipal buses are not school buses. He compared the shuttle program to a bus used for public transportation – that any kid could get on an NJ Transit bus to get from one place to another.
But how is the municipality allowed to transport children throughout town on a bus that doesn’t have safety equipment but makes regular stops to let kids off and is used for the purpose of getting them to school?
“I’m not aware of anything that prohibits a shuttle through town,” said Drumeler. He also said that theoretically anyone could get on the bus.
Drumeler emphasized that the shuttle “helps” get kids to school but doesn’t directly drop them off on school property. The town attorney said that because of this fact it doesn’t make it a school bus and thus is not bound by school bus regulations.
“It is more than a technicality,” said Anthony D’Elia, town attorney.
Making them safer
The mayor and Town Council recently put bus aides on the white municipal buses. Mayor Michael Gonnelli said that while he doesn’t support the idea of the community shuttle for kids it is his intention to make it as safe as possible.
“I totally disagree with the white buses but they were started years ago and they are used heavily by the kids,” said Gonnelli. “I have no intention of stopping it,” said Gonnelli.
He said that he has a police car following the bus and checking the areas where kids congregate to get on and off the bus.
The municipality has expanded its transportation services for children considerably in recent months. Beyond the long-standing shuttle program for middle and high school students, the town also offers courtesy busing with a leased bus from the school district to families at Riverside Court for safety reasons and now will offer subscription busing at $400 per student for Creekside Manor residents.
Children from both developments live less than a mile from Huber Street Elementary School. While some parents at Creekside have claimed their route to school is also unsafe, the police department has yet to make such an assessment.
While the children who ride the community shuttle do so for free, the mayor said that the municipality won’t pick up Creekside children in the same white bus because of their age.
“It doesn’t pick up grammar school kids…and it shouldn’t,” he added.
Bus has been shuttling teens since 2002
Busing children to school through the community shuttle bus program was started by former Mayor Dennis Elwell in 2002, who counted it as one of his major accomplishments in 2003. Since 1995, then-Councilman Elwell and Councilman John Reilly sought to provide a subsidized bus route in coordination with NJ Transit after the agency discontinued No. 85 bus service. The town was one of the first communities to be eligible for a state “Community Shuttle Program” to offer jitney bus service to residents who use New Jersey Transit trains and buses.
Secaucus officials hoped to provide residents transportation to get to shopping malls, the center of town, and out-of-the-way areas. They also developed a plan to use the bus to transport some students to the high school. Later in 2003 shuttle service also became available to Harmon Cove residents after the closing of the Harmon Cove Train Station.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.