Pay to ride? Request from school choice family prompts review of Easthampton school busing policy

Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Angelica Trenholm and her daughter Casey can see the Easthampton school bus from their living room window as it stops on Division Street West to take students to White Brook Middle School, where Casey is an eighth grader.

But Trenholm, who lives just over the town line in Southampton, must drive her daughter to school each day because the district’s policy prohibits students attending Easthampton schools through school choice — as Casey does — from being eligible for city school transportation services.

Trenholm has been seeking an exception to that rule since last fall, writing letters to school administrators and appearing at School Committee meetings.

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She has offered to pay the $300 bus fee so that her daughter can ride the city school bus from their home on Line Street in Southampton to White Brook, about 1.7 miles away.

“I am aware that there are fees associated with the bus and have no problem paying,” said Trenholm, in a recent letter to the School Committee. “Also, I have noticed that there is ample room on that bus in the morning.”

The School Committee is scheduled to take up the district’s bus policy when it meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the school offices, 50 Payson Ave. Last month, the board put off voting on an exception for Trenholm until the Policy Subcommittee could review district busing rules.

School Committee Chairwoman Debora Lusnia — who is also a member of the policy subcommittee — said that after careful review last week, subcommittee members concluded that granting an exception to the family would not be fair.

“Our policy says choice students can’t be bused,” Lusnia said. “Our number one goal is to make sure the policy is fair and equitable. We feel strongly that we can’t grant an exception for one person because then the policy wouldn’t be equally applied.”

Under the district’s transportation policy, busing is provided to Easthampton students in kindergarten through Grade four who live more than 1.5 miles from their school and those in Grades 5 to 12 who live more than two miles from their school. Busing is also provided to city students who attend vocational school programs or special education programs outside Easthampton.

The policy states that “students of choice attending Easthampton Public Schools are not eligible for transportation from and to any location in or out of Easthampton.” State law does not require school districts to provide transportation to students attending their schools through school choice.

School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said the rules were developed nearly two decades ago at a time when school bus services were being cut for budgetary reasons.

Follansbee said a number of school choice families have inquired about the busing policy during her four years as superintendent, although Trenholm is the only one to ask for an exception.

At last month’s School Committee meeting, board members voiced concerns about the financial implications of granting Trenholm’s request. If applied to all families living the same distance from their schools, they said, it would likely require $40,000 to add another school bus.

“We’ve had to cut busing many times and it’s a very tough issue,” said Mayor Karen Cadieux, who is a member of the School Committee. “But if you do it for one, you do it for all. This could be a Pandora’s box.”

Others argued that Trenholm’s situation is unique because she has offered to pay the bus fee and because her home is so close to the Easthampton town line.

“This single exception has no financial impact,” said School Committee member Laura Scott, who proposed that the board grant Trenholm’s request for the remainder of the school year. No vote was taken at the January meeting, and the Policy Subcommittee was asked to review the busing rules.

In an interview following the board meeting, Scott said she wished the district could extend bus services to more families through a lottery system.

“My opinion is that we have the authority to ease the burden of individual families by making exceptions,” she said. “Is this case likely to repeat itself? I think that’s unlikely.”

Trenholm, whose daughter has attended Easthampton schools for the past four years, agreed.

“I’ll bet not a lot of other families will want to pay that $300 a year” for seats on the bus, she said, in an interview at her home earlier this month.

“I’m already paying Easthampton water and sewer even though this house is in Southampton,” added Trenholm, who works as a visiting nurse. “I keep seeing that bus going empty every morning.”

Her daughter said she tried biking to school a few times in warmer weather. “That was horrible,” said Casey, 13. “I had to ride in the middle of the street.”

In the fall, Trenholm said she will most likely enroll her daughter at Hampshire Regional High School, where she will be eligible for bus services.

“This has been a learning experience for both of us,” Trenholm said. “It just seems like we are not going to get an answer in time for this year.”