School transportation costs a burden to Mohawk Trail

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School buses line up on the last day of school at Mohawk Trail Regional High School June 21, 2017. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School buses line up on the last day of school at Mohawk Trail Regional High School Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • The dashboard of a Mohawk Trail Regional school district bus, including the odometer reading 128,835 miles. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhart

  • Dick Arabia, a veteran bus driver of over 40 years for the Mohawk Trail Regional School district, waits at the high school in Buckland for students to be dismissed on the last day of school, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkharttt

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School district buses leave the high school in Buckland Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkharttt

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/21/2017 7:09:17 PM

Those yellow school buses, big and small, may look pretty much the same, but the 530 miles of roads they travel vary across the roughly 253 square miles served by the Mohawk Trail Regional School district — the largest, geographically, of any regional school district in Massachusetts.

As their odometers click forward, logging the miles of paved, gravel and dirt roads over hill and dale, Mohawk — like regional school districts around the county and the state — is losing millions of dollars.

Since the 2007-2008 school year, Mohawk lost $2.34 million in promised state transportation reimbursements, adding to the financial burdens of running a district across nine sparsely populated and relatively poor towns, whose geographic footprint is larger than that of the state’s 10 most populous cities combined.

To encourage rural towns to form more efficient regional school districts in the 1960s, the state promised to cover busing costs. But that promise has been rarely met. The law providing for reimbursement made the payouts “subject to appropriation” by the Legislature. Since 1978, school districts have received a full reimbursement for just four years, the first being in 1984. But generally, reimbursements have averaged about 73 percent.

In 2004, the reimbursement rate dipped below 50 percent.

The state budget for next school year is expected to set reimbursements at 72 or 73 percent, about the same as the current year.

“I think if we average it over the whole time frame,” said Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, “it creates an incredible stress on the school budget, with deficits of over $100,000 in the years since school year 2013-14 that need to be made up by cutting other parts of the budget.”

Against a backdrop of its being the state’s most sparsely populated school district — with fewer than two students per mile, compared to 4.3 students in the four-town Pioneer district — Mohawk is in a five-year transportation contract due to expire two years from now.

A long-range planning report noted in January 2015 that Mohawk’s $1,183,021 transportation budget represents more than 6 percent of the overall budget.

Yet Mohawk is hardly alone.

Last year, when the reimbursement was 73 percent, Frontier Regional School lost $73,258 in transportation costs, Pioneer Valley Regional School lost $221,246, Mahar Regional School lost $195,815 and Franklin County Technical School lost $216,984, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.

Franklin County Tech, the largest regional technical school district in the state, has had a total transportation shortfall of $1.6 million over the past seven years

“It’s a big hit,” said School Committee Vice-Chairman Angus ‘Terry’ Dun of Shelburne. “It’s always been an issue, one with which we’re powerless to deal with. It would be nice if they ever came close to funding it. It’s one of those things in the budget, but we never have any control over it.”

But in the big picture, between school committees projecting budgets a year in advance and the state reimbursing school districts a year later, the annual shortfall has to be taken in stride, even as area advocates try to fix the system and property taxpayers are left to plug the holes.

“If we have a $1 million transportation budget and get $600,000, on average, if you look at the original intent of 100 percent, for a district as small as Mohawk, that’s a huge amount of money,” said Buoniconti, who is also coordinating a rural schools coalition and has been a strong advocate for increasing regional school transportation reimbursements over the 12 years that he has been Mohawk’s superintendent.

The district, assuming the state will set aside only a fraction of actual regional transportation expenses, builds a 60 percent reimbursement into its budget. But what’s especially “devastating,” school officials say, are unilateral cuts that may be made by the governor in the middle of a school year, when there are only a few months left in the year to make up for the shortfall. Money then has to be cut for supplies, for training and often for staff — some combination of teachers, paraprofessionals along with administrators, Buoniconti said.

Steven Hemman, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, said that after years of advocating for full funding of state reimbursements, the association has begun focusing on getting at least 80 percent.

“We’d like to get 80 percent guaranteed every year, and not have it go up and down,” said Hemman. “It’s kind of a compromise.”

The Small Town Summit, a fledgling group of towns with populations of fewer than 500 residents per square mile, is continuing to push for full reimbursement as part of its legislative priorities.

Regional transportation reimbursement was conceived when fuel prices were a fraction of what they now are, and before bus contractors began consolidating, curtailing the advantages of competitive bidding, said Hemman. As transportation costs have mushroomed, reimbursements have shrunk.

The state’s 80 regional districts, he said, “are hurt because they have to pay for transportation costs that could have been used in the classroom instead, for teachers or programs. A lot of times, it’s deferred maintenance of buildings” that gets shortchanged. With other costs rising and Chapter 70 state aid for schools not keeping pace, Hemman said, under-funding of transportation may translate to increasing class sizes.

As the state has worked in recent years to persuade financially struggling communities to seek regional solutions, the reality of under-funded transportation reimbursements has left “a bad taste in their mouth,” said Beth Bandy of Charlemont, coordinator of the Massachusetts Small Town Summit.

“Back in the day, school districts were regionalized with the promise that this is what’s going to happen,” Bandy said. “If the current will’s not there to fix it, that’s a problem, because there are financial implications for the towns. That’s a gap that needs to be covered.”

For Buoniconti, who says the transportation reimbursement issue is part of a panoply of problems facing rural school districts, explains that he’s not interested in an “us-against-the state” approach, but is working to persuade the Legislature and the Baker administration to address the “financial instability” of regional districts like Mohawk.

“Rural school districts tend to have the lowest (enrollment) density factor,” he said. “This ties into the mission I’ve been on to address the concerns of rural school districts, which are regional districts,” he says. “One of elements within that has to do with disproportionate expenses for transportation, which are not factored into how we fund education in this state, so it’s one of the structural deficits we struggle against, and it needs to be addressed. It’s a huge component of our collective financial instability.”

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he realizes, after his first year observing the state’s budgeting process, “It’s very important to shift the narrative, because things are … heading in a very bad direction, when you look at small towns and rural areas.”

A Fair Share Amendment approved by the Legislature last week seeks to provide an additional 4 percent tax on individual incomes above $1 million to go toward education and transportation. The hope is that the tax will appear on the 2018 election ballot, Hinds said, and he will advocate for regional school reimbursements to be included.

“We’re trying to get past the arguments that when it comes to regional school reimbursements, ‘My big school in a city or larger town, we’re not a regional school, therefore, we’re not getting any extra money, so why should you?’”

Hinds added, “It’s clear we need to double down on a strategy that will work.”

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who with Hinds co-chairs the Legislature’s Rural Caucus, said underfunding regional school transportation — as the state does every year — “simply takes money away that otherwise could be spent directly on education, and the economies of scale are really not there. It’s a difficult concept to understand for some of our colleagues, who do form the majority but who don’t come from rural areas.”

As large a problem as it is, though, Kulik says funding levels have been helped by a provision placed in the budget six or seven years ago, that regional school reimbursements can’t be cut any more than Chapter 70 school aid, which almost never gets cut.

“Since that provision came in, at the end of the last recession, it’s gotten a budget boost every year,” said Kulik, who adds that he likes Buoniconti’s concept of special “sparsity aid” for geographically large districts with small populations and high per-student building and transportation costs.

Despite the advocacy by the region’s delegation year after year, the relatively small constituency means that it’s not a high priority for many advocacy groups, and there are few around who remember why the reimbursement program was broached decades ago to encourage regionalization.

“It’s critically important because it really does take money away from academics,” Kulik said. “Government gets a bad rap, and rightfully so, when it doesn’t meet its commitments. And this is certainly an important one.”


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