Our Opinion: School bus dilemma requires new concepts

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The parochialism that has hampered school regionalization efforts in the Berkshires appears to be fading, but the transportation funding shortfall that has been a problem for decades remains one. This extends to transportation for special education students who need to go where the best programs are, and high busing costs can sap funds better used on education.

More funding is certainly an aspect of the solution. But finding new ways of transporting public school students will be necessary for this issue to be resolved.

To encourage school regionalization, the state promised to provide full reimbursement for transportation costs in the 1960s. That promise has not been kept for at least 20 years, to the frustration of administrators, teachers, students and parents. School transportation funding becomes a bigger issue the farther west you go in the state, which is perhaps why Boston area legislators have not made it a priority. For a district like the Central Berkshire Regional School District, which must bus students to Dalton from hilltowns like Peru and Becket, it is a significant concern.

Last week, lawmakers came from across the state to Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington to speak before the state's Special Commission on Improving Efficiencies Relatative to Student Transportation, a group hosted by state Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat (Eagle, May 19). Along with the regional funding shortfall, related issues were discussed, such as the concern of state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, that high transportation costs can deprive students of a full complement of classes because of a lack of funding. Over the last five years, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District has suffered a shortfall of $1.5 million in state transportation dollars. Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon told the commission that "it's important to remember that the lacking of funding impacts kids and their learning experience, and their lives."

The regional transportation funding shortfall aside, Beacon Hill has increased overall transportation funding in recent years — but evidently not sufficiently to match rapidly rising busing costs. Superintendents believe a lack of competition enables bus companies to get favorable deals that are unfavorable to districts, an assertion that raised the ire of Marie Massini, whose family has owned Sheffield-based Massini Bus Co. for 50 years. Ms. Massini, who attended the commission meeting but did not speak, told The Eagle that busing costs rise along with every other school-related cost, and bus companies are hampered by a lack of qualified drivers. Input from bus company officials should benefit the commission.

Ideas were brought forth that merit exploration, among them a state collaborative to create more competition for busing companies. Echoing an idea offered by Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, to use public transportation to carry students, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, suggested that perhaps the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority could provide a school busing option and urged the commission to explore it. This strategy, perhaps following current bus lines as much as possible, could benefit the BRTA as well as Berkshire school districts.

Sen. Hinds' commission has an important task ahead of it, especially if fledgling regionalization efforts are going to expand rather than stall. Along with exploring funding sources, that task must include finding new ways of addressing the school transportation issue and implementing them.

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