Uniform policy questioned School officials explain the details

With the rancor of very outspoken critics, school officials defended the district’s uniform policy and answered many of the questions being raised.

The policy, which was approved by the Board of Education on June 19, has become the subject of angry letters, telephone calls, and frequent public discussion.

In an effort to better explain the district’s position, school officials met with the Bayonne Community News last week.

“This is not something that we did in a hurry,” said Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan, although she said now that the district is committed to the policy, officials are faced with tight time constraints to get kids sized and uniforms shipped in time for the Sept. 25 deadline.

State law requires that a district can require public school students to wear uniforms provided the policy comes as an agreement between schools and parents, and that parents get a 90-day warning as to when the policy will go into effect.

Earlier this year, schools officials sent home a questionnaire asking if parents liked the idea of uniforms for elementary school students. About 40 percent of the total elementary school population parents said yes.

Some critics of the policy, however, said this was a vote on the concept, not the current implementation.

“That survey only asked if we would be interested in school uniforms. That has nothing to do with this. Sure we were interested. But that doesn’t mean we like this,” said Sharon Metro, a parent with two children in elementary school.

School officials, however, said they have been meticulous in their effort to inform parents about the process, noting that a large number of parents have either consented or stayed silent on the issue.

Of the 6,500 families, only 3,900 responded to the initial survey, or about 61 percent. Of these, 67 percent agreed uniforms would be a good idea.

Yet those raising their voices about the process have been very vocal, and have been seeking answers about the cost, selection and implementation of the program.

Parents commenting to the Community News said they had numerous areas of concern that included the quality – or lack of quality – of the school uniforms being offered, the cost as well as minimum purchase requirements, the punishment students face for not complying, and how the company was selected to supply the uniforms.

“I feel like a great number of other parents that this is being pushed on us,” said Eric Nelson, a concerned parent.

Changes in location for fittings

While McGeehan and Assistant Superintendent Robert Craig went to all of the schools to speak with parents, some parents said their presentation differed from what was later approved by the Board of Education.

Parents were told that fittings would be done in all 11 elementary schools.

“We were told that we could go to our own school, but later told we had to go to Midtown Community School,” said Metro.

McGeehan said the change of location was made for several reasons.

Because students needed to be sized for uniforms, time became a factor and bringing all the students to one school meant this could be accomplished more easily. Midtown Community also has parking whereas many of the other schools do not.

Because the awarding of the contract to Uniformity came so late in the school year, school schedules became an issue with half days and graduations often creating logistical problems.

“Midtown Community has off-street parking and has a more flexible schedule than the other schools,” McGeehan said.

Parents also questioned the change in policy that could result in suspension of students if they do not wear the uniform to school.

Several parents said suspension was not in the original proposal and that non-complying students would be prohibited from taking part in extracurricular events.

But Craig said suspension is one option in the current dress code policy and that the uniform policy is an extension of the dress code.

Under state law, school officials can mandate uniforms and are permitted to suspend students who do not comply.

“Under our current policy, if some child wears a T-shirt with an offensive saying on it, we talk to the student and to the parents,” Craig said. “If the student returns to school wearing the same shirt, we have the ability to suspend. But this is not something we want to do and we try every other option first. We have not had to suspend anyone in the last five years.”

Change of company name?

This, of course, puts parents in the precarious position of being forced to purchase uniforms or have their children face suspension, leading some to question how the uniform company was selected.

State law says that parents are to play a part in establishing the policy and selecting the style of uniforms, but is much vaguer on the legal requirements for selecting a vendor.

While many boards of education throughout the state have implemented or are considering implementing uniform policies, only a handful have a single vendor to supply these services. In Hudson County, Scholastic Uniforms of Union City provides uniforms for Union City and Harrison, and is being considered for Secaucus and elsewhere.

“We’re not going to have a single vendor supplying our uniforms,” said Secaucus Board of Education Member Tom Troyer, who heads the committee on the uniform policy there. “We are going to supply a list of places parents can go.”

Despite the fact that parents in Union City schools are required to purchase uniform packages from Scholastic, no bid was done, with officials there claiming that since no taxpayer money was being expended, bids were not required.

While legal advice to the Bayonne Board of Education concurred, officials from the New Jersey Boards Association said the matter seems to fall under the state’s commodity laws, which require a bid process.

McGeehan said this is the reason why Bayonne took requests for proposals, receiving four proposals of which Scholastic provided the best quality for the least cost.

Several members of various parent-teacher organizations who had heard the presentations prior to the bid process said they were told that Scholastic had been the company the school district would use, then questioned why the company changed its name to Uniformity when being awarded the bid.

Uniformity listed its offices in Newark, but a list of the more than 500 vendors who service New Jersey shows the company as located in Metuchen, although this is the address of the company’s warehouse, not its offices.

Several parents said they were told by company representatives that Scholastic and Uniformity were not the same company, and yet many parents also said in paying for the clothing packages, they were asked to make their personal checks out to Scholastic.

Parents were originally given a Web site in which they could find information about Uniformity’s offerings, which was a subdirectory to Scholastic’s Web site. But the Uniformity link stopped operating a short time later. Bayonne school officials said the company had some Web trouble, but said the company was operating in Bayonne as Uniformity, not Scholastic.

“The owners said they thought it was necessary to do business here under a new name,” McGeehan said.

Package purchases are required

While school officials said the granting of the proposal covered the cost of packages as well as individual costs, several parents said they were forced to purchase packages.

“I went to Midtown School to check out these uniforms and to see if I could get some more information. I thought I would be able to purchase only the articles I needed for my daughter, who by the way will be in eighth grade next year,” Nelson said. “I was going to purchase a couple of pairs of slacks and shirts. However, I was informed by a representative of the company that I must purchase one of the packages they offered before I could purchase individual items. I was also told that even if I waited till they opened a store in Bayonne I would still have to purchase the package first.”

One critic, Mary Markowski, said if all of the parents purchase the cheapest package at $89, Uniformity would receive nearly $600,000 from the contract, while the cost from other vendors would cost Bayonne parents about $450,000, and without the shirt logo, as little as $307,000.

But McGeehan said that each family had to purchase one package before they could make individual purchases.

“But if you have six children, you still only have to purchase one package,” she said.

This was news to Metro, who had spent $300 to cover the cost of her two students at Philip G. Vroom School.

While the school district has issued price charts covering some of the costs, parents complained that these lists did not show the individual cost of items.

Metro said the costs were higher on individual items than could be purchased in retail stores.

Markowski also noted that the company is offering double knee pants that are not required under the uniform policy, and that some items girls are permitted to wear such as skirts and capris aren’t offered in any of the uniform packages.

State law requires that uniforms be provided to students who cannot afford to purchase them.

Under the contract with Uniformity, low-income families with students who are eligible for the free lunch program will still be required to purchase uniforms, but will receive a 10 percent discount on the purchase.

No shipping and handling charges

Some parents complained also that Uniformity was charging shipping and handling for each order, when the contract required that the company open a store in Bayonne.

McGeehan said the company has agreed to do away with the shipping charges, and refund or give credit for those parents who have already paid it.

Although Uniformity will have a store in Bayonne – expected to be located on Broadway near 47th Street – this will be a catalogue store. Parents will have the option to pick up their orders or have them delivered after the items are shipped to Bayonne from the company’s warehouses.

But the store will not be open in time to allow students to be fitted for uniforms so the school district has expanded its fitting schedule at Midtown Community into July.

Additional fittings will be held July 12 to 14, July 19 to 21, and July 26 to 28, noon to 7 p.m. In addition, school officials have set up an information hotline at (201) 858-5833 for parents with questions about the program.