Officials talk school busing costs

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The high cost of busing students and insufficient state help are weakening schools and undermining education, officials say.

For more than a decade, educators have bemoaned the state's failure to live up to a promise to fully reimburse school districts for transportation spending.

At a meeting last week that drew lawmakers from around the state, officials looked for new approaches to this old problem.

Quality is at stake, noted state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "We're talking about [not giving] our students a full complement of classes because of transportation costs," she said.

A panel reviewed the problem in a session at Monument Mountain Regional High School as part of the state's Special Commission on Improving Efficiencies Relative to Student Transportation. The body is co-chaired by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Hinds said the commission began its work in March and must file its report to state officials by Dec. 1.

The state made the promise for full reimbursements in the 1950s and 1960s, when it encouraged schools to regionalize and form districts. It fulfilled that pledge for a while, but has gone back on its word in recent decades, short-changing districts and creating a strain that hurts students, school officials say.

Making matters worse, educators add, is a lack of competition and bidders for school busing contracts. This jacks prices up.

"There's a lot of feelings about this," said Joseph Maruszczak, superintendent of the Mendon-Upton Regional School District.

He called the dearth of bidders a "hot-button issue" for superintendents across the state.

In a presentation to the panel, Maruszczak cited a study in which 145 district superintendents were surveyed about transportation woes. More than half of those who responded to online surveys said another concern is the cost they face in transporting special education students to schools outside their districts.

Other problem is the expense of bus rides to vocational schools, as well as busing homeless students and those in foster care.

"It's the constant battle for reimbursement," Maruszczak added.

Money trouble

A local superintendent with a $2 million annual transportation budget knows these losses well. In the last five years, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District has lost about $1.5 million in state transportation dollars.

"If fully funded, the experience of my students might change dramatically," Peter Dillon told the commission. "At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the lack of funding impacts kids and their learning experience, and their lives."

Even without fully reimbursing the schools, the state's transportation spending is growing. In 2018, the state spent $605 million on it, up 36.3 percent from 2012.

The increase for out-of-district busing has risen 25 percent over this period.

Running one bus a day costs $325 to $400.

Then there's the bidding problem.

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Superintendents complain that due to lack of competition, bus companies can get favorable deals that deplete school budgets.

A bus company official says her industry is not to blame. Running a school bus company is expensive and difficult, something the commission did not hear about last week.

Marie Massini, whose family has owned Sheffield-based Massini Bus Co. for more than 50 years, attended the hearing but did not speak to the panel. She told The Eagle she later wrote to Hinds with her thoughts. She said that when the commission was being formed, she pointed out to the senator that it included no one representing the busing industry.

This is a flaw, says Massini, whose company holds contracts with two districts, including Dillon's.

"The people making these decisions really don't understand what it takes to run a school bus company," Massini said, citing struggles that include finding drivers.

Massini doesn't understand why busing should be less expensive in a world where costs to run just about everything have increased over the last 10 years. "It shouldn't be difficult for superintendents to understand, because they know running the schools is more expensive than it was 10 years ago."

Fresh ideas

School officials aren't just grumbling. In survey responses, they offered ideas, too, like a state-run collaborative to create more competition among busing companies, or having school districts collaborate in seeking bids.

Or perhaps the state could set flat rates for buses per mile and regulate bidding.

Other ideas involve electric buses and paying parents to drive their children to out-of-district schools.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said perhaps the state should play a role when it comes to school bus contracts.

And Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, wondered if public transportation could help move students.

"I can contract [to transport] my senior citizens, but not for this?" he asked.

Pignatelli said he wants the commission to pursue this idea. "It could help BRTA as well," he said, referring to the local transportation authority.

In the audience, people spoke of busing horror stories — long rides in rural districts that wear students down, and the harm of insufficient funding.

"It's hard enough to fund education," said state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

Monument High senior Sam Webb said he is working on a local ride-sharing app that he thought might offer a solution.

Marguerite Willis, a former school official from Charlemont, called for even more thinking about new approaches.

"I ask you to think out of the box," she told the gathering. "Sometimes I feel like nothing changes. We need something new, fair and equitable."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871


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