Public Comment

Open Letters to Berkeley School District Officials Re BUSD Transportation Policy

By Kasey Harboe Guentert, David Alumbaugh
Tuesday March 29, 2011 - 07:38:00 PM

I am writing to advocate for the addition of a policy within the Transportation group at BUSD. The policy I am requesting would read something to this effect:

1. If children are placed in schools outside of their home zones when they requested only schools within their home zones, transportation will bus these children to the schools in which they were placed.

2. If a critical mass of children are in this situation defined above – a dedicated bus will take them from the zone to the school so as not to place unreasonable travel time burdens on our children beyond the home zone. 

I want to also make the following clear: I support the Berkeley School system – unfortunately not as much in the traditional sense of frequently volunteering in classes or being a fully fledged PTA member (due to my intense job and frequent work travel) – but the lottery and admissions process. We moved back to Berkeley to ensure that our child had access to diverse but high standard public schools. We avoided Albany and other suburban communities because they have not successfully integrated students. We are pleased with all the Berkeley elementary schools and feel that each school on the list in all zones is an excellent choice academically and socially. Secondly, I also am aware that the staff have accommodated requests on a case-by-case basis to transport students out of zone. My issue has to do with a firm, permanent out of zone transportation policy that will apply to all parents, rather than just the persistent and resourceful ones. I am sure you’ll agree that handling this through a blanket policy, given the continuing reality of overcrowding in the zones, is much more in line with your philosophy than allowing case-by-case situations to arise each time. 

To explain my own situation - we moved to the North Zone in October of 2010 and my oldest of 3 children is beginning 1st grade in September (James Guentert). We moved into the North Zone after finally buying a house in Berkeley. After being told that all subsidies and funding were cut for after school care, we were then told that all other schools were full and my son needed to stay at John Muir. I’ve been driving him to school, 25 minutes each way, and due to being consistently unavailable for work during these times I was laid off from my job in January (my job is ending in July). My layoff will cause significant financial hardship for my family. In addition, my son has often been late to class because I am struggling to get him there on time and meet my work demands. 

In spite of applying in the first lottery, my son did not receive a placement for a school within our zone for next fall. He was placed at Washington – to be clear he is being placed at a school we did not ask for. When I was informed of his placement status by Melisandra Leonardos, I became aware that the transportation department has not yet made arrangements to provide busing for Washington for the next school year. In fact, in speaking with Bernadette Cormier, it seems that the transportation arranges individual case-by-case transportation solutions once lottery results have completely played out (sometimes not until September or even October). There are a few reasons why I don’t believe that this is a good enough solution for Berkeley Public School parents. 

Rather than force each parent to negotiate individually with the transportation department and worry about how their child will get to school when Admissions is unable to match zone, I ask that we start a discussion on making this a promise. The promise would state that BUSD Transportation will make sure that each child gets to school when Admissions cannot meet the zone requirements. If we end up doing this in the end, why can’t we save the back and forth discussions, waiting and worrying for the parents, and create a written policy that we’ll meet this need under the stated conditions? Put this in writing and provide it to the parent, similar to the waitlist policy or any other procedure that exists to help explain a highly complex system. In my own situation, it would make a tremendous difference in my search for a new job to have knowledge today about my son’s school timing and transportation situation. It is not right to ask myself and the other parents in my situation year after year to wait anxiously to find out about how our child will get to school. 

I also believe that from the BUSD perspective, it would save administrative time to have the policy state that forced out of zone children will be transported. This could mean fewer calls to/from parents, fewer letters/emails and meetings handling this issue, fewer exceptions. 

I know that BUSD is getting to closer to this. I was encouraged that for this current school year Transportation received blanket approval to bus all children from the North Zone first to BAM and then to Washington. This is a great first step in creating the policy. However, please provide some guidance on how we can make this type of policy permanent and what we as concerned parents can to do help. I will therefore not accept a response that has to do with budget crisis, lack of resources, etc. – in particular because this has been done already on both a case-by-case basis and consistently for some schools this year. 

I would like to kindly request your written reply to acknowledge receipt and understanding of my points, and also a summary of next steps from your perspective. 

Kasey Harboe Guentert, Ph.D. 

I would like to express my support for the letter / request sent to you by Ms. Kasey Harboe. If the district is going to require there students to attend schools that are further away from their house than schools located within their zone, then the district needs to provide the transportation to those schools. Not doing so provides an additional burden on us families whose children that by a essentially a random number generator (I am assuming the lottery is in fact random and not biased) or because they do not already have a sibling in school, were not assigned to a school in their home zone. 

To give you a short history, I am recently divorced and my ex-wife lives in Oakland. This year my son Kiran attended kindergarten at a private school. Due to a number of reasons, including commuting and finances, and most importantly talking to a number of my neighbors who have been especially happy with the BPS system, we decided to sign him up for the public schools. What was especially encouraging during the application process is that he had friends at all three of the schools that we applied to in our zone (Thousand Oaks, Rosa Parks and Arts Magnate), and we felt the transition from his current private school to the public school system would be made easier by having someone he knows and is friends with in his classes. Thus it was disheartening to find out that he had been assigned to Washington. It then became infuriating to find out that not only was he not going to be at a school where his neighborhood friends were going to be, but that I would have to provide the transportation to that school. This is simply not an equitable nor environmentally sound principal. Therefore I request that you adopt a policy similar to that outlined below. 

David Alumbaugh