The wheels on the bus may go round and round, but budget dollars are needed to grease the wheels, and the question school district and town officials are grappling with is where those dollars will come from and how they will be spent.
The School Committee, discussed transportation costs, school start times and the effect changes might have on the budget during its on Wednesday, Feb. 15 meeting. No decisions have made on the issue yet, as the governor’s budget is not expected until March 1. Incoming governors receive extra time in which to compile their inaugural spending plan.
School Committee Chair Christopher Howard noted at the Wednesday, Feb. 15 meeting, that the conversation was a continuance of summer discussions and Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak’s goals for the year, as they heard a presentation on how both issues effect the district budget.
“Tonight is all about trying to share a little bit of a plan, or a potential plan for how the district looks at transportation, which would include start times, as well as how we transport both mandated and non-mandated students,” Howard said.
He explained he had received several emails concerning a vote on school start times that evening, which did not take place, but stressed it had never been included on the meeting’s agenda.
“That may happen,” he said, explaining committee members could always make a motion during the meeting. “But it’s a transportation update in the superintendent’s presentation.”
Committee member Dawn Byers argued the emails could have been a reaction to a previous budget presentation centering on three transportation and start times scenarios the committee might consider.
Szymaniak said some numbers included in the original presentation and discussion about start times had been incorrect.
“We have adjusted those in the budget package we’ll be talking about later,” he said. “This is, by no means, the be-all-end-all.”
The presentation inclusion of language from regional agreements (1991 and 2018); School Committee transportation policies; MGL CH. 72 S.7A; current transportation procedures; inconsistencies in the procedures; options and recommendations and how start times effect transportation.
“We are under the ’91 agreement, but I think it’s important that I clarify what was in the 2018 agreement that we voted and has been taken back in being passed over in Whitman,” Szymaniak said.
The 1991 text of the Regional Agreement requires the district to provide student transportation with the cost apportioned to Whitman and Hanson as an operating cost, with the committee determining each year whether the district will fund non-mandated busing. In 2018, the agreement was revised to define which students come under non-mandated busing, requiring the School Committee to subtract transportation reimbursement from cost to the district, with the remaining cost apportioned to the towns based on student population.
He said if the Committee makes any changes moving forward in this fiscal year, it would have to change policies governing bus scheduling and routing, walkers and riders, the school bus safety program and student conduct on buses.
Among the inconsistencies in busing policies, all Hanson students qualify for a bus ride to school, but Whitman students do not; Whitman’s school route maps are outdated; Non-mandated bus zones differ from state guidelines and Whitman uses crossing guards but Hanson does not.
Options to consider include busing all kindergarten students; discontinue busing all students living within 1.5 miles of a school, regardless of grade level; allow Hanson to continue its current busing all students policy; allow Whitman to bus students according to the state guidelines of between .75 and 1.5 miles of a school; change the walking distance to agree with the state guidelines; and busing all students living within 1.5 miles from a school.
“If we bus all kids, Whitman numbers go up $28,000 and Hanson numbers are actually reduced [at about $46,000],” Szymaniak said. “These are different numbers, but I think it’s clearer and it buses all our kids and we don’t have to worry about “routed” roads, we don’t have to worry about sex offenders, we don’t have to worry about using crossing guards
Szymaniak’s recommendations were to bus all kids.
The district is currently budgeted to spend $1,671,748.24 on mandated busing and $264,041.76 for non-mandated busing. The split between the two towns for mandated busing is 60.6 percent – or $1,013,246.61 – for Whitman and 39.9 percent – or $658,506.63 for Hanson. The cost for non-mandated busing is divided by town as Whitman paying $211,270.41 and Hanson contributing $52,671.35.
Reducing the non-mandated radius for busing to a half-mile or less radius from a school would mean only 94 students in the entire district would be affected, Szymaniak said. The total cost for Whitman would be an additional $7,593.07 over fiscal 2023. For Hanson’s nine students the added cost would be $964.42.
That number increases to about 935 students if the radius is expanded to 1.5 miles, which would mean an additional $221,268 for Whitman and $45,447 for Hanson.
“That’s almost a break-even of where we’re at for total non-mandated busing for this year,” he said.
The number of kindergarten students is unavailable right now. He argued that towns would be “financially OK.”
“It’s not a huge increase,” he said. “It’s much better than what we used to send the towns when we did the per-pupil piece. This is all based on mileage and it works out for our district costs.”
Committee member Fred Small asked what the cost difference would be to bus all Whitman students.
“It seems like it would be negligible,” he said.
“It would be,” Szymaniak said. The estimate is that would cost $17,000 more then the $211,000 it is anticipated to cost Whitman for the proposal.
“To me, it’s a win-win if the town can save money and we can provide transportation [to all our students],” Small said.
Committee member Dawn Byers asked for clarification between the two busing scenarios for Whitman.
Szymaniak said the difference was between grade levels included in the options and whether the non-mandated busing limit is a half-mile from a school or all students are bused.
“My recommendation is we bus all kids,” Szymaniak said.
She also indicated a precise number of buses and ridership that are included in the $1.769 million to First Student would clarify that no buses are being added.
The division of cost within the Regional Agreement surrounding mandated busing also concerned her.
“Whitman is paying a substantially large cost of this transportation when we only have 43 percent of the riders,” she said comparing that with a traditional 60/40 split based on population or 43 percent of Whitman students actually riding the bus compared to 57 percent in Hanson.
Member Glen DiGravio asked if the aim of no walkers in Hanson applies to his son who is “right down the street” from the school he will attend next year.
“He can walk if he wants,” he said. “I see walkers all the time.”
“He can choose,” Szymaniak said, noting that the numbers include eligible riders.
“I’m trying to understand,” member Michelle Bourgelas said. “If we’re trying to get everyone to ride the bus, how are we not needing more buses?”
Szymaniak said the district has never told towns how to fund it by a percentage split between towns, instead using a per pupil basis, based on mileage.
“Whitman has always taken ownership of their [non-mandated] students, and Hanson has always taken care of theirs,” he said. “The Regional Agreement Subcommittee is talking about that busing language and is bringing it back to their boards.”
Whitman Select Board member Shawn Kain, who is also a teacher and parent, said he wants to see more students walking and fewer on the bus because it is healthy exercise and well as money-saving to walk – and exercise also helps social-emotional interaction between kids.
A parent who had attended a previous School Committee meeting because of the length of bus rides in Hanson and that effect on student’s behavior, said she has already noticed an improvement on the bus ride. It has gone from about an hour to a half-hour.
“There are less issues,” she said. “My children are home quicker because there isn’t an issue with bus drivers knowing where they’re supposed to go.”
She also said there is more consistency of drivers on the route.
Hanson Select Board member urged all boards and committees to make decisions with an eye toward 10 or 15 years down the road, when they may not be serving anymore.