The Shelter Island School District is faced with an additional cost of about $68,000 in its budget to cover a bus and ferry fare to transport students to Our Lady of the Hamptons School in Southampton.
By state law, the district has the obligation to provide bus transportation to students who study off-Island but live within a 15-mile radius from their homes to the schools they choose. In this case, there are three such students and accordingly, they are entitled to the busing.
Appropriately, the district will provide the bus to all Our Lady of the Hamptons students, even if they live beyond the 15-mile radius since the cost won’t vary and there is room on the bus for the estimated 11 students who will be riding it in September.
The district has long provided transportation to Ross and Hayground schools, both private institutions. But the bus service for those two schools can’t work for the parochial school because its hours differ from the two private schools.
Last year, the Reporter editorialized against a proposition on the May ballot to provide transportation to Our Lady of the Hamptons, arguing against the proposition because expanding publicly funded busing erodes enrollment here and cuts into the overall district budget.
But there’s another issue in the case of busing to Our Lady of the Hamptons and that’s the constitutional separation of church and state doctrine. We acknowledge there have been different court interpretations of that part of the First Amendment that reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Most recent interpretations have dealt with the church not interfering with the state.
Our view is that taking tax money to provide a service to a parochial school does interfere with the amount of money available for the education of public students on Shelter Island. So, too, does the money allocated for busing private school students.
We recognize under current state law, there is no choice but to provide this transportation to private and parochial schools, but when taxpayers complain about their perceived cost of education on Shelter Island, they need to factor in the reality that the budget is not just supporting those students who attend classes here, but providing services for those whose parents opt to send them to private or parochial schools.
To stay within the state-imposed tax cap, the district can’t simply add money to its budget to cover these extra expenses. They must take the funding from educational services for students who attend classes on the Island.
We have no complaint about special education services not available here that are necessary for some students who must be bused off Island. But that’s a far different issue than parents who opt to send their children to private or parochial schools who could easily be educated here.