Community advocates who gathered May 17 for the annual Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s Maryland Legislative Breakfast to lay out their legislative priorities for the coming year pushed for funding for several programs.
But busing for parochial school students remained the focus of the modern Orthodox community.
“Our No. 1 priority is getting busing back up and running,” said Karen Barall, Mid-Atlantic director for OU Advocacy. “That’s the most important to our constituents.”
That point was reiterated during the breakfast by Edwin Zaghi, co-chair of OU Advocacy-MD to the 250 participants and more than 25 elected officials and their representatives in attendance at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
Among officials there were Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and several Montgomery County council members.
Other OU priorities are funding for universal pre-kindergarten, increased services for special needs children in nonpublic schools and security for synagogues and other Jewish establishments.
It was Leggett who had recommended that $660,000 be allotted in fiscal year 2016 and a seventh school be added to the list of private schools eligible to use Montgomery County Public School buses to transport their students.
Members of the county council’s transportation and education committees voted unanimously at the end of April to cut the budget to $159,000, enough to pay a consultant to study the issue.
The council will recess in June, giving the OU and other stakeholders little time to work with the council to devise a solution. The issue will likely be taken up again in September.
“We are trying, but our expectations are low as to getting something done before they recess,” said Barall.
Given the dim outlook on having a busing program in place for the start of the 2015-16 school year, tensions could easily have arisen at the breakfast.
“There was a little bit of tension going into it, but kudos to both sides for recognizing that it’s not the only issue important to the community,” said Alec Stone, a Democratic political activist and unsuccessful candidate in 2006 for delegate in District 19, which includes much of Kemp Mill.
“We prepared our constituents and what they should say to their elected leaders as to how busing is important to their lives,” Barall said.
“There was a little bit of tension going into it, but kudos to both sides for recognizing that it’s not the only issue important to the community.”
Their message wasn’t lost on council at-large member George Leventhal, whom Barall described as “very honest” about the council’s decision.
“He explained that it’s the county’s responsibility to provide transportation for all students in the county whether they go to public or nonpublic schools, and he pledged to work with the stakeholders,” Barall said.
Del. Bonnie Cullison, who couldn’t attend the breakfast, sent her aide and Kemp Mill resident Ira Ungar in her place. For years, Cullison has been a leader on the busing issue. Nevertheless, she is caught between the teachers’ union, which she once led, and the wishes of the nonpublic school parents, trying to balance their concerns.
That balance is something Barall said other counties and states have their eye on as they debate their own busing policies.
The breakfast was also an opportunity for Kemp Mill residents to flex their political muscle. Their votes are courted by officials and candidates for election in District 19.
Leisure World, with its three precincts and higher voter turnout, receives the most attention from elected officials and candidates. But the Kemp Mill precincts — which number three or four, depending on how boundaries of Kemp Mill are defined — also have high voter turnout and have seen an increased willingness among residents to contribute financially to campaigns.
“I think in the past year and a half [the community] has really started to engage their elected officials … and get a lot more politically active,” said Barall.
“The voter turnout in last year’s election was higher than it had been in previous years. And if we could keep that growing, we could be much more influential in Montgomery County politics.”