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Smithtown kids adjust to modified busing

Students are dropped off by bus at Nesaquake

Students are dropped off by bus at Nesaquake Middle School in St. James Wednesday, the first day of school in the Smithtown School District. (Sept. 7, 2011) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Despite a drizzle that dampened their new book bags, children smiled Wednesday morning as they arrived for the first day of classes at Smithtown Elementary School.

But the happy tableau had an undercurrent of angst, as many Smithtown families adjusted to life without school buses. District residents voted in May to cut costs by stripping bus service from more than 1,500 students -- 14 percent of the district's student body.

"It's horrible," Lisette Sambach, of Smithtown, said after bringing her daughters, Julia, 10, and Jenna, 6, to school Wednesday. The girls had taken the bus in previous years.

"Picking them up might be a disaster," Sambach said.

The May proposition, which passed by about 800 votes out of 7,000 cast, eliminated busing for more than 500 elementary school students who live less than a half-mile from school. The new policy also extends -- from 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles -- the distance middle and high school students must live from school to be bused.

The vote also reduced, from 20 miles to 15, the maximum distance that private school students can live from their schools to get district busing. The changes were expected to save $800,000 this year.

But the new rules may be short-lived, because residents will return to the polls on Sept. 19 to vote on restoring busing. If that passes, busing could be restored by Oct. 11, Superintendent Edward Ehmann said Wednesday.

The district beefed up traffic coordination and added Suffolk County crossing guards to help students get to school safely.

At Nesaquake Middle School in St. James, safety officers directed cars through a new student drop-off system implemented this year.

"Thus far, this has worked exactly how we planned it," Principal Kevin Simmons said as he greeted students.

For some parents, concerns about reduced busing dovetailed with worries about safety on Smithtown's Main Street. Smithtown Elementary is on Lawrence Avenue one block from the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Main Street, where accidents in the past two years have killed three pedestrians, including an 11-year-old girl.

Sambach's daughters would have to cross Main Street. "I would never let them walk by themselves, that's for sure," she said.

Safety was on the mind of Kim Quinn, of St. James, who said she took a day off from her waitressing job so she could bring her daughters, Mikayla, 10, and Morgan, 8, to Mills Pond Elementary School.

"The taxes keep on going up, but we keep losing services," Quinn said.

Anna Kusi, a paralegal, said she planned to work late Wednesday so she and her husband, Emmanuel, a nurse, could take their daughter, Anjali, 5, to her first day of kindergarten at Smithtown Elementary.

"I was shocked," Kusi said of the busing reduction, as her husband took pictures of Anjali. "It's going to be very hard for us."

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