It was Thursday night, November 18, and the regular crowd struggled in to Norman Thomas High School, through the ranks of school safety officers and up a series of store- like escalators. It made some of the regulars feel like they were in Macy's. They wondered aloud if the students felt the same way. At the entrance to the auditorium, a pleasant woman sat at a table with the sign in sheets: one for speakers, one for invited guests and on for the inquiring public. This, after all, was a hot topic: busing! How many stories are there in the Naked City...8 million? Half of them were going to be about busing.
It was a high auditorium with particularly bare lights and exposed air conditioning vents. It was foreboding. Not a place of merry high school musicals or proud awards ceremonies. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour and the still early darkening of a return to Easter Standard Time, but parents came in quietly and sat in separate seats or in small clusters waiting for the fireworks.
The CCSE began the meeting in its usually muted manner. Reading from a prepared Agenda, the role call was taken and the Co-President delivered a report. The audience listened to the endless whereas clauses and was getting restless: some yawned and a few rolled their eyes. Then the bell rang.
There clustered in the front rows were Lauren Katzman, Executive Director of Special Education and four members of her staff. Siting in seats to their left, was Matt Berlin, Director of the Office of Pupil Transportation and four member of his staff. It was dueling DOE departments! But, the one folks had come to hear, to question, to see in the flesh, was Matt Berlin. Parents, staff and advocates were at Norman Thomas High School to get answers from Matt. Why were the buses late? Why weren't there booster seats for four year olds? Who did the routing?
Over and over a series of core questions were intoned by parents. How are bus routes determined; the degree to which bus routes are practical; respect for students with disabilities and their families; the use of appropriate language by bus drivers, matrons and OPT personnel; communication between OPT and schools, parents and bus vendors; range of ages and abilities on a single bus, overcrowding, safety, travel time to and from school, students missing instruction and mandated services; the accountability system within OPT. It was a litany longer than any Act of Contrition!
Two unionized bus drivers testified about their experiences. One gentleman stated that a bus driver will be fired if they do not follow an OPT route, despite how practical changing it would be. And another voiced his unease about students who have wheelchairs not having enough adequate space on a bus.
As parents made their remarks and left the microphone, members of Berlin's staff took them out side in the halls to get their information and provide some assurance that long standing problems would finally be addressed.
Matt Berlin bravely attempted to answer questions and sooth ruffled feathers. His responses were a surprise to most of us. Fixing this was above his pay grade. Changing regulations to clearly define the accountability protocols was not within his realm. As a result of this rumbling, stumbling, bumbling performance, parents felt no better about their situation than when they entered the auditorium. From the crowd someone yelled, "Have this meeting every month in every borough!" Berlin shrugged his shoulders and wobbled his head. He seemed to be agreeing to a regular meeting....with parents! Members of the CCSE immediately took him up on the suggestion and asked for interested individuals to sign up, right away and before anyone came to their senses and changed their minds! Parents, members of the CCSE and from the newly formed group PIST (Parents for Improved Student Transportation) are leading the effort to make this a reality. And Matt Berlin has agreed to report back and meet with parents two weeks from now to further discuss possible recommendations and resolutions. Miracles still happen....and on East 33 Street yet!
If you would like to become involved, please either contact the Citywide Council on Special Education (CCSE) electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-391-8354. Or you can visit the website of PIST at www.pistnyc.org
Ellen Mc Hugh