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A Mohawk Trail Regional School District bus advertises for drivers. The state budget includes a 90 percent reimbursement for school transportation costs.
Recorder/Micky Bedell

A Mohawk Trail Regional School District bus advertises for drivers. The state budget includes a 90 percent reimbursement for school transportation costs. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

The state budget passed this week by the Legislature will give the county’s sprawling regional school districts a huge savings for school bus expenses by reimbursing 90 percent of the cost — the highest in decades.

“It would be tremendous for our budget,” said Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee Chairman Robert Aeschback. “At 252 square miles, we are the largest geographical district in the state,” he explained. “Transportation for us is a staggering cost.”

Decades ago, to encourage more town-based school systems to regionalize, the state said it would fully reimburse regional school districts for school buses for students living more than 1.5 miles from schools; however, the amount of reimbursement offered over the years has rarely been higher than 70 percent.

State funding for the school year that just ended was between 63 and 66 percent, so the change will mean tens of thousands in windfall state aid — assuming the governor doesn’t veto that line item.

According to state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, vice-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, this is the highest state transportation reimbursement in four decades.

“It’s an overall 36 percent increase, of $18.7 million more than (was appropriated) in Fiscal Year 2014,” he said. “It brings the bottom line to $70.3 million for regional transportation. It’s extremely good news. It’s what regional school districts have been working toward. We are finally making a serious dent in this expense — because school districts will be able to put more money into classroom programs.” Kulik was also a member of the joint conference committee that approved this funding.

“I also want to give great credit to Sen. Stephen Brewer, who proposed this in the state Senate,” Kulik said. Brewer, of Barre, who will be retiring, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

“This is huge and very meaningful to all the districts,” Kulik said. “For a district like Mohawk, it’s a significant difference for the bottom line.”

This year’s Mohawk transportation budget had been projected to cost $1.09 million, with $450,000 to be reimbursed through Chapter 71 transportation aid, according to a spring budget projection.

Once Gov. Deval Patrick has signed the budget into law, and Mohawk’s new business manager is on the job, Aeschback said school officials will go over the budget to see what the revised costs will mean to the district. Also, he said, it’s possible that regional school districts won’t see the additional transportation reimbursement until much later in the school year.

Aeschback said the governor has 10 days in which to sign the budget, and has the power to veto various parts of the budget.

“I’m cautiously optimistic until the next 10 days are up,” he said.

Joanne Blier, who was Mohawk’s business administrator until Monday and who has started her new administrative position with the Gill-Montague Regional School District on Tuesday, said that school districts cannot spend more money than what has been included in their approved budgets. She said additional state money for transportation reimbursement will be treated as “excess revenues” that will go into the school districts’ general funds. She said schools don’t yet have their final state aid “cherry sheets.”

“Until the final cherry sheet comes out, we really don’t know that it’s official,” she said of the state aid increase.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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