Many Long Island parents whose children enter private and parochial schools next week are protesting a lack of public-funded busing during the first days of class.
These parents say decisions by dozens of school districts to open on the second week of September will leave their children without buses in the meantime.
Debate over the issue is heated in Lawrence, a diverse community where the school district pays for transporting thousands of resident students to Catholic parochial schools, Jewish yeshivas, private special-education centers and other nonpublic sites.
State law requires districts to provide busing for public and nonpublic students alike, but does not require busing on days that public schools are closed.
Lawrence school officials, like counterparts in some other districts, have decided to start busing all students Sept. 9, the opening date for the local public schools.
Dozens of Lawrence parents whose children are scheduled to enter nonpublic schools on Wednesday call the district's decision unfair.
"I'm entitled to busing like anyone else," said one parent, Denise Maier of Atlantic Beach, which is part of the Lawrence district. Two of Maier's elementary-school-age children are due to start classes Wednesday at Long Beach Catholic Regional School.
Another parent, Siobhan Wilson, also of Atlantic Beach, has two sons enrolled at Long Beach Catholic and another at a Catholic academy in Mineola. The mother said she and her husband, who works in Manhattan, will face great difficulties in driving their boys to classes.
"It does make me mad, and it makes me feel there's discrimination against Catholic schools," Wilson said.
Lawrence's school superintendent, Gary Schall, said that is not the case, and the district is doing its best to treat all families equally. Religious and ethnic issues are particularly sensitive in Lawrence; a majority of school board members are Orthodox Jews.
Schall added that providing three or four days of busing next week for all the district's nonpublic students could endanger their safety, because it might require hiring large numbers of temporary bus drivers unfamiliar with local routes.
The schools chief said his district provides busing for about 4,500 students enrolled in more than 70 nonpublic schools, including some in Queens and Brooklyn. Lawrence's public enrollment is about 3,100.
"There is no exception here," Schall said, going on to refer to the wide range of nonpublic schools that local students attend. "I do want to say that we recognize, because we're different from other districts, that we do our best to cater to our private school population. They are taxpayers, too."
Some Island districts -- including Long Beach, which borders Lawrence -- have chosen to provide busing next week for nonpublic students, even though those districts do not open their own schools until Sept. 9.
Brother Gary Cregan, principal of St. Anthony's High School, a private Catholic academy in South Huntington, said he was alerted in early June that about a dozen school districts sending students to his school had planned not to provide busing next week.
Cregan said he informed parents of the issue, urging them "to politely but firmly indicate that this is unacceptable."
Consequently, the principal said, eight districts changed their stance and agreed to provide transportation next week.
"I view it as a matter of justice," Cregan said. "These parents who elect to send their children to Catholic schools are taxpaying citizens."