Rep. Blais takes the bus to bring awareness about funding, ride times for students

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School District buses leave the high school in Buckland.  ​​​​​STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Hampshire Regional student David Spencer and Rep. Natalie Blais are on the bus for his hour-long ride. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and David Spencer, a senior at Hampshire Regional, after the bus ride from Chesterfield to Hampshire Regional High School. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2019 5:08:09 PM

Rep. Natalie Blais wanted to better understand what children endure to get to and from school each day, so she did what seemed most logical — she got on a bus with them.

The 1st Franklin District Democrat from Sunderland recently rode from Chesterfield to Hampshire Regional High School to raise awareness about the amount of time children in regional schools across her district are spending on school buses.

She said she also wanted to make a statement about the importance of school transportation reimbursement. 

“The idea for this trip originated at a meeting with area superintendents and principals about the financial challenges facing area schools,” Blais said. “In fiscal year 2018, regional transportation for Mohawk (Regional School District) was underfunded by $290,727.”

Blais said that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with by the state. She said as the state pushed for the regionalization of schools, it made a promise to reimburse transportation at 100 percent. 

“That is a promise that must be kept,” Blais said.

But it hasn’t been kept — it is reimbursing schools at a rate of 75 percent or less, leaving them to fund the rest, like Mohawk.

The state currently has 58 academic regional school districts, including five in Franklin County — Mahar in Orange, Frontier in South Deerfield, Mohawk in Shelburne, Pioneer in Northfield and Gill-Montague in Turners Falls. 

Blais said the recently passed House budget and proposed Senate budget both increase the rate of reimbursement to 80 percent.

Costs associated with transportation in a regional school district represent a significant portion of its budget because of the geographical footprint associated with bus routes across numerous communities, often with low population densities, Blais said.

“The mandate that regional school districts are required to transport all students to and from their homes places a significant burden on school districts, made especially difficult with reimbursement rates fluctuating from year to year,” she said.

Frontier Regional School District Superintendent Darius Modestow said the district is always conservative when planning for regional transportation costs because sometimes even a 75 percent reimbursement gets cut mid-year.

“The state wants more regionalization, but then doesn’t fund it as promised,” Modestow said. 

The superintendent said last year the district budgeted $223,321 and received $164,466, or a 73.65 percent reimbursement, from the state, and this year it budgeted $283,321 and received $179,603, or a 63.45 percent reimbursement.

“Transportation reimbursement is subject to 9C cuts,” Modestow said. “This means regional school budgets are vulnerable in the middle of a school year, if a reduction by the state (governor) is necessary.”

Modestow said that could mean mid-year staffing cuts for some districts.

Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Jonathan Scagel said most students have a one-way ride of 30 minutes a day, but the longest ride is for Warwick students at between 45 minutes and an hour one way.

Scagel said regional transportation is underfunded by $175,000. He said the district receives a 75 percent reimbursement from the state.

Tari Thomas, superintendent of the Mahar Regional School District, said the longest bus rides to the high school are from Wendell. She said students are on the bus about 65 minutes each way.

Dan Haynes, the district’s chief financial officer, said Mahar is underfunded by about $214,912, excluding special education transportation. 

After her ride, Blais shared her experience at a Special Commission on Improving Student Transportation meeting. David Spencer, a senior at Hampshire Regional who rode with Blais, shared his daily experience, as well.

Spencer said he spends two hours on a bus to and from school each day, an experience many students have in Franklin County, as well.

“It takes me longer to get home, so I have less time to do homework,” he said.

Modestow said the longest bus ride for students in the Frontier Regional School District is a little more than 45 minutes one way.

Information about bus ride times and funding was not available from the Gill-Montague Regional School District at press time. 

The Special Commission is charged with making recommendations to improve efficiencies relative to transportation for students attending regional school, students in special education out-of-district placements, students attending out-of-district vocational and technical schools, students attending out-of-district agricultural schools and any other student transportation issue deemed appropriate. It will file a report with state officials on these issues by Dec. 1. 


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