A busing conundrum: Transportation issue is making Leverett, Shutesbury students late to regional schools

  • Amherst Regional High School

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2022 8:39:00 PM

AMHERST — On Monday morning, the bus heading to the Amherst Regional High and Middle schools got to a home on Pratt Corner Road in Leverett at 8:40 a.m., two minutes later than its scheduled pickup time.

That bus continued on its way to Amherst, making it to the high school at 9:02 a.m., earlier than the 9:15 a.m. arrival time that had been the norm for the first several weeks of school, but still after the 9 a.m. start time. That is unacceptable, parent Robert Brooks, whose son Bobby is a senior, told the Amherst Regional School Committee Tuesday.

“Students should arrive at school with enough time to get off the bus, go to their lockers and get to their first class without being consistently late to class,” Brooks said.

The buses arriving late at the secondary schools from both Leverett and Shutesbury, between 9:10 and 9:15 a.m., is a chronic problem that Superintendent Michael Morris told the committee the district has been trying to deal with since fall 2021, when the schedules for the high school and middle school were flipped so the school day begins nearly an hour after the elementary schools.

“It’s getting better,” Morris said. “We’ve shifted things, it’s getting closer to 9 o’clock, but it’s not at 9 o’clock every single day, particularly those three buses in Shutesbury and Leverett that tend to be slower to arrive.”

He acknowledges this is a difficulty for those students.

“I don’t want our Shutesbury and Leverett secondary school students being disadvantaged by the arrival time in school, and right now, while it’s improving, it’s not to my level of comfort,” Morris said.

Morris and Rupert Roy-Clark, the director of facilities who is responsible for selecting bus contractors and designing routes, outlined the challenges and the work that is going into getting the buses out.

The regional agreement between the four towns, which dates to the 1950s, makes the Amherst district responsible for all transportation, including for the elementary schools in Shutesbury and Leverett, which are part of School Union 28 with Erving, New Salem and Wendell. The runs in the Franklin County towns are put together by Amherst staff in collaboration with Union 28’s Superintendent Jennifer Culkeen, with costs assessed through a formula factoring in the number of students and mileage.

This system can’t change without opening up and amending that regional agreement, which Morris said already may have to be revised when Amherst’s sixth grades move to the middle school next fall.

“I’m in no way blaming anyone,” Morris said. “We can usually work out any challenges we have, (but) this is just one we haven’t been able to resolve.”

While no resolution came at the meeting, Morris explained the causes, including insufficient time between the school starts for the elementary and secondary schools, with drop off at Leverett and Shutesbury schools at 8:15 a.m., or five minutes later than the Amherst and Pelham elementary schools.

“The five minutes is the big difference right now. The five minutes is having a major impact,” he said.

Weather conditions that affect the gravel roads in the rural towns, construction projects and turnover in drivers, though no shortage, is also posing issues. In addition, unilateral changes to start times can’t be made.

Craig Cohen, Leverett’s representative to the regional committee, said that start time was a point of contention with the teachers in their contract, with a sentiment that the work day at Leverett Elementary School shouldn’t be forced to change by the region’s whims.

“It’s not a simple relationship. It is complex,” Cohen said. “It’s not so simple to say LES and Shutesbury should change their start times. They’ve got bargaining units who would not necessarily agree.”

“We are somewhat bound by contractual pieces of start day and end day, at least for this year,” Morris said.

Roy-Clark said in an ideal world there would be hour difference between drop-off times, rather than the 45 or so minutes. “An hour would give us plenty of time to be much more reliable in being early. That said, five minutes makes a difference,” Roy-Clark said.

Efforts to confront the late bus problems have also included blurring the town lines for the routes, with some students living in Leverett and Shutesbury near the Amherst line boarding a traditional Amherst run. “We’ve not let town boundaries be a barrier to making the most efficient runs possible,” Morris said.

The district has also reduced the number of stops, both through neighborhood stops that require some students to walk a short distance, and eliminating stops where a student is getting to school by other means.

Morris said adding bus routes might be possible, though that would mean hiring a driver and getting a bus or a van.

Jaeden Case, a senior from Shutesbury, told the School Committee she understands the situation well. Though she can now drive herself to school, she sees her peers at the bus stops at 7:50 a.m.

“Teachers have been very good about not making kids on those buses tardy,” Case said.

Even so, Case said the late arrival impacts athletes, who can’t get their equipment into lockers, and students who might have an exam to start the day.

“If you have a test A period, those five minutes are very valuable, and you don’t have time to go to your locker,” Case said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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