School bus dispute may disrupt January classes

A government decision to change the eligibility requirements for first- and second-graders' school transportation has drawn the ire of the Union of Local Authorities and the Forum of 15 Independent Cities - both of which have threatened to shut down all school transportation if the plan goes through. Rooted in a NIS 55 million cut to the ULA's budget, the decision increases the distance requirements for bus rides to school, from the current 2 kilometers to 3-4 km. This means that on January 1, when the decision is slated to take effect, first-graders who live less than 3 km. from their public school buildings - up to 4 km. for second graders - will be forced to either find their own rides to school, or walk. "We're talking about six- and seven-year-old kids," said ULA spokesman Moti Danos on Wednesday. "First- and second-graders who will have to walk, through the coldest and rainiest months of the year, between 3-4 km. to school because of this decision. There's no way we're going to allow this to go through." According to Danos, the ULA sent a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on December 1, relaying the union's official request to have the decision rescinded. And while the ULA has yet to hear back, they have made it clear that they will not take the situation lightly. "If the government wants to go through with this and take away school bus service from first graders, then we'll respond by shutting off all school bus service," Danos said. The ULA has also accused the government of carrying out the move in the middle of the year, making it harder for the union to respond. "The government expects us to pick up the bill for these kids," Danos explained. "By coming in the middle of school year, we're expected to put up the money for their school buses. If we did, it would have to come out of residents' property taxes, and those funds are already allocated for other services." ULA head Adi Eldar was just as adamant, saying, "It's hard for us to believe the level of insensitivity of the government. They've already forced us to struggle with the issue of security guards at our schools and now they're hitting the kids' transportation." Eldar called on Olmert "to cancel this decision immediately, before we are forced to disrupt the learning process at the beginning of January by shutting off all transportation for all students until a solution is found, and the situation returns to the way it was prior to this decision." In response, the Prime Minister's Office said "the decision to cut NIS 55m. from the transportation budget was made by the government in the framework of setting the priorities of the 2009 budget. [These] include the addition of billions of shekels to the education [budget], and the general improvement of teachers' salaries, additional hours for the educational system, a reduction in the number of students per class, and the construction of new classrooms." As for the school transportation budget, the Prime Minister's Office said, "the demand for greater efficiency in this area is not illogical, and here, too, our position is that there must be differential budgeting principles introduced that the Education Ministry will translate into acceptable criteria."