Parents and members of the Community Education Council for District 24 were joined by representatives from the Office of Pupil Transportation at Tuesday night’s meeting at PS 229 in Maspeth to discuss their chief concern: children from the Big Six residential towers, along Queens Boulevard, walking to school via a perilous intersection at a Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass, where cars speed onto and off the ramps.
“We think the Big Six does deserve a variance,” Council President Nick Comaianni said, referring to a granted permission to use a school bus. “I would not let my own children walk that route, not at any age.”
Alexandra Robinson, the executive director of OPT said that her office identified an alternative route for the children to walk to school that avoids the underpass and provided maps to the families living in the Big Six.
“We’ve heard your reasons and they sound more like excuses,” council member Bill Kregler said, condemning the alternative route, which is nine-tenths of mile, just short of the one-mile needed to guarantee bus service and includes a different dangerous intersection, at 61st Street and Laurel Hill Boulevard.
Comaianni and Kregler both noted that there is a bus from the Big Six, which is only half full and asked why OPT could not fill the bus with the other children seeking variances.
Robinson explained that there are a lot of considerations, that variances depend on age and difficulty, and that New York City requires people with “like circumstances” to receive equal treatment, but ultimately said “I don’t know.”
Drivers are required to conduct route audits three times a year, but OPT can order them at any time, according to Robinson. As for filling the bus, OPT would then have to decide which children get variances, out of a possible 30 or so, who all live in the same place.
Robinson also explained that she is “responsible for upholding policies,” that the city has limited resources and that there are 500,000 children using public transit to get to school.
Comaianni condemned mayoral control of the schools because having the same requirements throughout the city fails to account for the different needs of people in different situations. As it is, agencies like the OPT have to worry that granting a variance in one place will open up a lawsuit elsewhere in the city, he said.
“This should be handled right here by this board,” Comaianni said. “The [Panel for Educational Policy] is a complete joke. It’s no way to run an education system.”
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, a former member of the PEP for the past five years, said that when the resolution was brought to the floor it was voted down 8-5, the eight were mayoral appointees and the five were the borough representatives.
“Nothing’s changed at that intersection,” Fedkowskyj said. “Telling parents and children to walk out of the way is not going to happen. We can’t wait for something to happen, we need to do it now.”
Joann Berger, a parent at the meeting, called the number of children hit walking to school “unacceptable” and explained that it’s led to parents driving their kids to school, which creates traffic congestion at drop-off and dismissal times.
“It’s not within my power to make any changes tonight,” Robinson said, but she assured the council that she “will make every effort to revisit the issue.”
Other parents raised other complaints, such as getting new bus drivers in January who did not know the routes and caused children to wait for long periods of time in the cold. One parent said she waited for over 40 minutes one day, with young children who began to cry from the cold and then failed to get answers from the bus company.
Comianni and Robinson both urged parents to file complaints with OPT and Superintendent Madeline Taub-Chan’s office.
Robinson noted that OPT’s customer service policy has changed since her last meeting with the CEC two years ago, “hopefully for the better.” Now all calls are responded to within 24 hours. The agency receives about 2,000 calls every morning, she said.