The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has reimbursed districts based on a mileage calculation, and would be amenable to considering a mileage-based non-mandated busing formula for Whitman-Hanson rather than the current per-pupil calculation, according to Associate Commissioner for District and School Finance Jay Sullivan.
He made the comment in a Friday, March 25 Zoom call with district and Whitman Town officials.
“That’s a viable methodology for allocating your costs,” Sullivan said, noting few districts use the mileage method, but it is viable and it is an acceptable methodology.
“That would count every student in the district, whose butt is in a bus seat,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said. “That’s what we’re working on through the Budget Subcommittee here.”
He said they are calculating based on every student to whom they must provide a seat based on distances from school of between a half-mile and 1.5 miles from schools.
School Committee members Christopher Howard, Dawn Byers, David Forth and Steve Bois as well as Galvin, Selectmen Randy LaMattina and Justin Evans and Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman joined the March 25 call with DESE.
“That makes a lot of sense,” Sullivan said of Szymaniak’s question, but he cautioned that every rider has to be assigned some level of cost, with two options for calculation — per pupil or mileage.
“The good thing about the mileage method is, the houses don’t move,” Sullivan said.
W-H has been using the per-pupil method, having just encountered the mileage method.
The Budget Subcommittee planned to meet Wednesday, March 30 to get a turnaround on a formula method to DESE as soon as possible, because time is a concern.
“If we can come up with an alternative methodology that allows us to appropriately capture a higher reimbursement amount, which will benefit both towns in the district, then that is our goal,” Howard said.
Sullivan said such a method could maximize the district’s reimbursement, which Szymaniak said is the ultimate goal.
Galvin and Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina reached out about a second meeting following the March 14 call, feeling there was a better way to explain their methodology to DESE.
“After watching the last Zoom Call you had with the superintendent, the town has a position that some of our concerns and points we were trying to look for clarification on, may not have been addressed fully,” LaMattina said.
While being part of a region comes with some benefits — one being regional transportation reimbursement, he conceded, the board feels, as things stand right now, the district is not submitting their true mandated or what you classified as eligible, bus costs.
“We think that by using the district’s own documents, that we can actually prove that,” he said, noting that they forwarded a copy of Whitman residents John Galvin and Shawn Kain’s proposal to DESE. “We feel the actual cost of non-mandated busing is slightly higher than $1.6 million as opposed to the 1.1 million, which gets submitted.”
LaMattina said his point was bolstered by a vote at the last School Committee meeting when a vote was taken against funding non-mandated transportation.
Galvin pointed to a Feb. 9 School Committee meeting when Szymaniak outlined what would happen if Whitman opted against providing non-mandated busing.
“Several scenarios were presented. … There were discussions in the last Zoom meeting that these were simulations,” he said. “I don’t really believe that to be true, because for several year now, Whitman has had a significant concern over the way we were being charged for non-mandated busing to the [point] where the superintendent felt the need to address it to the School Committee on what would happen if, this year, Whitman decided not to fund non-mandated busing.”
Galvin said a document produced by district Business Manager John Stanbrook broke it all down. Even removing Whitman only saved a total of $131,000, Galvin said, yet Whitman is being assessed $487,000.
He argued the actual cost for Hanson is $101,000 — not $121,000.
“It didn’t make sense to us that the district wasn’t filing for what it would actually cost them if the two town meetings voted not to support non-mandated busing,” he said.
“Number one, the town meetings can’t tell the School Committee how to spend their money,” Sullivan said.
“It was a little concerning hearing that the towns were making the decision as to whether or not to transport non-mandated students,” said Christine Lynch of the DESE District and School Finance office, repeating what she had told Szymaniak on March 10. “I don’t know what might happen moving forward.”
LaMattina said where they came up with 20 buses is because, by the district’s own admission, according to the district’s bus structure documentation, that is the number required to provide mandated transportation.
“Why is that number not the true mandated cost?” he asked, noting that, in addition, the School Committee voted at its last meeting not to fund non-mandated transportation and asked if that was their decision to make.
“It’s the School Committee’s decision to set the policy of who they’re going to transport and who they’re not going to transport,” Sullivan said, asking if that meant the district would not be transporting between 750 and 900 students to school next year.
School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard said it was not correct.
“We looked at the regional agreement … and we looked at that section specifically related to transportation,” he said, noting it reads that transportation shall be provided by the regional school district, with the cost apportioned to the member towns as an operating cost. Every year the committee votes to decide whether non-mandated busing will be paid for by the regional school district.
“The vote that was taken was that the regional School Committee would not be paying for the cost of non-mandated busing,” Howard said.
If the School Committee decides against providing non-mandated busing, which Howard stressed, they did not do, an article for Town Meeting would be presented to the selectmen of each town for approval by the voters. He said the School Committee would be seeking clarification from legal counsel what the intent of that second section means, but right now the focus is on calculating the cost.
“We’re talking about a subjective scenario here, that really has not come to fruition,” Sullivan said, noting that in 2019 — before the pandemic — the district transported between 3,000 and 3,200 students. While mandated busing is required for students living two miles or more from school, but towns are reimbursed for transporting students more than 1.5 miles of a school.
“That’s the incentive to provide the service,” Sullivan said, noting that reports from the district over the past five years indicate two-thirds of students (more than 1,500 students) live 1.5 miles or more from school and nearly 725 under 1.5 miles away. Last year the cost was $1.6 million for bus transportation — $1.12 million over 1.5 miles and $543,000 for under 1.5 miles.
Sullivan also said buses must run at least 75-percent capacity.
“The way this has always been handled is we vote the assessment, and there is a non-mandated busing cost that has been provided to both towns, and that has been handled, I believe, in both towns as a separate article,” Howard said.
Heineman clarified that, for many years, after the School Committee votes against funding non-mandated busing, it then gets a separate assessment number … only to be interrupted by Howard, who countered that it was a decision of the School Committee and not the Budget Subcommittee, while agreeing it does pertain to the town and transportation.
Later in the video meeting, Heineman was able to ask his question about whether DESE agreed with Whitman Town Counsel, which has opined that the school district may only assess an operating and a capital assessment — and not a separate non-mandated busing assessment. An article for the latter must be done via a separate article unless non-mandated busing costs are included in the operating budget. Whitman’s town counsel is also a legal representative for several school districts.
“I’m not necessarily suggesting it’s illegal,” Lynch said of separate busing assessments. “I’m suggesting it’s problematic” because if one town does not approve it, services would not be equal for all students in the district.
She said most regional agreements divide the cost by number of students, but recently districts are looking for new ways to calculate costs when methodology no longer works for them.
“You can’t steer the conversation away from topics you don’t want to address,” LaMattina said, explaining to DESE that the towns receive an operating assessment, a capital assessment and line for non-mandated busing that the district calls a special operating cost.
“If Town Meeting votes not to fund it, then we’ve got a problem,” he said.
Howard asked if DESE would approve changing mandated busing costs based on the analysis they have.
“Right now there’s no intent to do it this way,” he said.
“Somehow this world is turned upside down here,” Sullivan said. “A decision’s got to be made by the School Committee about the service that they’re going to provide, they send the bill to the town and, if they don’t want to fund it, that’s fine — then you won’t have a budget, then you’ll have to go through the 1/12 process.”
“It should be one assessment number, first of all,” Lynch said. “But regardless, it is, again, the School Committee’s discretion in terms of what it’s going to offer the preK to 12 population — In both towns.”