Editorial: Urban legislators don’t get the struggle to fund large, rural bus routes

  • Kids at the Federal Street School in Greenfield board a school bus. The Greenfield Public Schools Policy and Program Subcommittee decided to make no significant changes to what’s on the books. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/MATT BURKHARTT

Published: 7/12/2017 3:28:07 PM

Maybe someone should arrange a school bus ride across the 530 road miles of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District for state legislators from those geographically tiny Boston metro cities and towns. Seriously.

How else will the majority of state lawmakers, who hail from urban areas, truly understand the scale of the fiscal problem districts like Mohawk face when the state doesn’t fulfill its promise to pay for school busing in regional districts — which also happen to be among the poorest.

At roughly 253 square miles, the Mohawk school district is the largest geographically of any regional school district in Massachusetts and since the 2007-2008 school year, has lost $2.34 million in promised state transportation reimbursements, adding to the financial burden of running a district across nine sparsely populated and relatively poor towns.

Mohawk is hardly alone. There are 80 regional districts in the state.

To encourage rural towns to form these more fiscally and academically sensible regional school systems in the 1960s, the state promised to pay for busing. But that promise has rarely been kept, and the individual legislators who made the promise are long gone. So maybe a little education is in order. The law promising reimbursement made the payouts “subject to appropriation” by the Legislature. Since 1978, school districts have received a full reimbursement just four times. Reimbursements have averaged about 73 percent. In 2004, the reimbursement dipped below 50 percent.

The state budget for next school year is expected to set reimbursements at 72 or 73 percent.

The gap creates an incredible stress on school budgets, according to Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, whose transportation costs exceed $1 million annually.

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 Technical School, the largest regional technical school district in the state, has had a total transportation shortfall of $1.6 million over the past seven years.

“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,” Buoniconti told the Recorder.

It’s bad enough that rural districts don’t know from year to year how much money the Legislature will pay out, but in tight fiscal years, the governor also sometimes makes unilateral cuts in busing aid to balance the state budget, leaving regional districts scrambling to cut money from supplies, training and staff mid-year to compensate.

The Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools has given up on trying to get full reimbursement and has begun focusing on getting a guarantee of at least 80 percent to provide budgetary certainty.

But 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 transportation costs have mushroomed, reimbursements have shrunk. Regional busing 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.

When shortchanged, regional districts have to divert money to cover busing, money that could have been used in the classroom.

To his credit, Buoniconti, rather than play a blame game, is working with other rural groups to persuade the Legislature and the Baker administration to address the financial instability of the status quo.

Buoniconti notes that the disproportionate expense for busing in rural areas is not factored into how we fund education in this state, so it’s one of the structural deficits many of our schools struggle against, and it needs to be addressed.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, who represents the region and attended Mohawk, gets it, and is looking for ways to get more money.

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

We’d support this approach, especially if it can come with guarantees of consistent and full coverage of bus costs.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who with Hinds co-chairs the Legislature’s Rural Caucus, also likes Buoniconti’s concept of special “sparsity aid” for geographically large districts with small populations and high per-student building and transportation costs. This might help with the shortfall in busing money.

But he also notes underfunding regional school transportation is a difficult concept for some of his colleagues from urban areas to understand.

So, let’s invite those legislators for a little rafting on the Deerfield, a mountain coaster ride at Berkshire East, and a school bus ride around beautiful western Mass.


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