By Jennifer Mauro | Associate Editor
Sixteen-year-old Sierra Caponegro is looking forward to being able to drive herself to school next year. But that isn’t stopping the Holy Cross Academy, Delran, junior from fighting for transportation needs in nonpublic schools.
“I want to bring attention to the struggle of how two parents who work have a hard time getting their child to school,” Caponegro said moments before testifying March 15 before lawmakers at the State House in Trenton.
Caponegro and Robert DiMedio, Holy Cross Academy associate principal, battled residual snow and ice the day after a mid-March nor’easter pummeled the East Coast in order to put a human face on an ever-increasing struggle in parochial schools across the Diocese: transportation funding.
Currently, nonpublic school transportation funding is provided up to $884 per student, which, argues the New Jersey Catholic Conference and the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, falls short of the amount needed. They would like to see that amount, which has been frozen since the 2007-2008 budget year, increased to $1,047.
So would Caponegro and DiMedio, who see firsthand the problems caused by a lack of funding.
Caponegro, for example, lives in Medford, which is about 30 minutes from her school in Delran. Due to her bus making numerous stops, it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get to school and up to two hours in the afternoon to return home. That’s not including that the bus stop itself is two miles away from her residence.
“That’s an extra three hours our students could be spending on academic pursuits or extracurricular activities,” DiMedio said.
Public school districts typically use their own vehicles first for public school students. If any vehicles and drivers are available afterward, the districts can transport nonpublic pupils. Those policy decisions are made on an individual school district level. Thus, the majority of nonpublic school transportation occurs through private contractors.
Sometimes, however, it is not cost-effective for private contractors to pick up a route or routes due to issues such as gas prices, tolls, rising insurance costs and driver salaries, especially at the $884 per student rate. Caponegro testified before the state Assembly budget committee that there are typically only 14 to 20 pupils on her bus.
The $884 allotment, she told lawmakers, “is about one-half of what it takes. These funds are insufficient … and it’s a hardship for some families.”
This school year, for example, Caponegro’s family has had to pay roughly $700 out of pocket to cover school transportation costs.
“Our Catholic students are literally being left in the cold,” DiMedio said, adding that Holy Cross Academy had the day after the storm off from school solely due to lack of transportation. “Between gas, tolls and everything else, that [$884] amount of funding is just too low to cover the cost of the students.”
DiMedio and others stressed that Catholic schools across the Diocese are not looking for special treatment when it comes to increasing nonpublic school transportation funding.
“We want all of our parochial schools to get to go to and from school like our public school counterparts do,” DiMedio said.
Barbara Caponegro, who was at the State House to support her daughter, agreed.
“As American citizens – as citizens of Burlington County – we made a conscience choice to have faith-based education with the expectation that there would be busing,” she said. “It’s an inequality that I’m paying my taxes for public school, but I’m going above and beyond for Catholic school. It’s time for our state to up the stipend that goes to our nonpublic schools.”
Referencing how state funds have been frozen for nearly 10 years, she said, “The price of living has really gone up, busing, maintenance, gas, etc., and we’re still in the year 2008.”
DiMedio said transportation needs are a concern he’s heard from families still considering Catholic education, too.
“Prospective parents ask, ‘How do we get here?’ and we have trouble answering that because of the lack of funding,” he said.