Transportation presents financial, safety challenges for rural schools

  • Gateway Regional High School junior Joey Pisani stands at his usual bus stop area Thursday afternoon in Russell. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

  • Gateway Regional High School junior Joey Pisani outside his home in Russell on Thursday afternoon. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2022 7:51:27 PM
Modified: 8/14/2022 7:48:02 PM

Editor’s note: This is a story in a continuing series diving into the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report.

When the bell rings each afternoon, Joey Pisani prepares himself for the long bus ride home ahead of him.

Despite living 6 miles from the school, the Gateway Regional School District junior endures a 45-minute trip home from school due to the way the district has to schedule its rides to meet state regulations. These long bus rides, Pisani added, can be taxing after a long day of learning.

“I’ve definitely encountered hour-long-plus bus rides,” the Russell resident said, depending on how scheduling works out each school year. “After being in school for six hours or so, being on the bus for an hour can be a little tiring.”

Pisani’s situation is one of many similar stories up and down the Pioneer Valley as rural school districts are forced to schedule long bus rides for students to meet state regulations for regional transportation reimbursement.

Among the state’s transportation regulations, laid out in Chapter 71, Sections 7A and 16 of Massachusetts General Laws, key points affecting rural school districts in Franklin and Hampshire counties include: transportation reimbursement is unavailable for students living within a mile and a half of the school and buses must, on average throughout the school year, be at 75% carrying capacity.

“The commonwealth shall reimburse such district to the full extent of the amounts expended for such transportation, subject to appropriation,” the law reads. “Subject to appropriation” is the essential point to note because, while the state said it will fully reimburse schools, it does not have to do so because appropriations can be changed by the Legislature.

This reimbursement, however, is for regional schools only — which are required by law to provide transportation for all students — and does not cover the entire cost of transportation.

“Regulations say it’s supposed to be 100%,” said Gateway Superintendent Kristen Smidy, but, she added, the state keeps it below full reimbursement to encourage competitive bidding among bus companies. “A response we received is they want to make sure schools are doing their due diligence and getting the lowest bid, which is somewhat insulting because we usually only get one bid because these really spread-out bus routes are hard to comply with.”

Panel’s recommendations

To take the financial pressure off school districts, while also potentially shortening bus rides, the Special Commission on Rural School Districts recommended the state establish and fully fund a Rural School Transportation Reimbursement account. Other recommendations include funding non-resident transportation, such as for vocational schools; appropriating funds for handicap-accessible vans; and directing the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to conduct a feasibility study of transportation collaborations.

Nearly 50 miles northeast of Gateway, the Ralph C. Mahar and School Union 73 District finds itself in a similar spot due to the sparsity and geographic size of its North Quabbin towns.

“The reality is we go out to bid, we seek bids and we only get one bid,” said Superintendent Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski. “The reality is nobody competes against each other.”

As an added financial blow, Teahan-Zielinski said the Petersham Center School, which is considered its own district, needs to charter two buses just to avoid putting elementary school students on a bus for nearly an hour and a half. This is done without reimbursement because only regional districts are eligible.

“We could save money and only run one bus, however, because of the sheer number of miles, we have to run two buses,” Teahan-Zielinski said, adding that one bus, while cheaper, would affect students’ education by increasing ride times. “We can’t do that.”

Smidy said coming up with bus routes and funding for it is a “balancing act” because students need to have a “reasonable length ride,” but Gateway needs to get as many students as it can onto a bus to meet reimbursement requirements.

Gateway budgets nearly $900,000 for transporting students from the wide geographic range of Chester to Montgomery each year, while Mahar budgets approximately $915,000 to transport students in a geographic range covering Petersham to Wendell. Reimbursement rates fluctuate from year to year, but Teahan-Zielinski said it tends to average around 75%.

For Gateway, Smidy said 100% reimbursement of the school’s transportation expenses would, at the very least, help the district balance other financial pressures because it is a “huge cost.”

“We would have more stability in terms of being able to plan,” she said.

Safety, convenience

Beyond the financial aspect that districts must deal with, there are safety issues that come into play with rural roads, as well as the effect long bus rides can have on students. Winding, dirt roads are difficult for buses to traverse, especially during mud season or in nasty winter weather. Even in nice weather, these roads — usually without sidewalks — are dangerous for students to walk on if their bus route doesn’t drop them off at their home.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, who co-chaired the Special Commission on Rural School Districts, said the transportation struggles of rural districts are personal for her because she rode a Hampshire Regional School District bus in 2019 from Chesterfield to Hampshire Regional High School to get first-hand experience on what students go through every day.

“I haven’t forgotten it. … I left my house at 5:30 in the morning to meet him around 6 a.m.,” Blais said. “David (Spencer) spent two hours on a bus each day like many schoolchildren in our rural areas. I remember him talking about how it really impacted the time he had available to do homework and that it limited his ability to participate in after-school groups and organizations.”

Blais added these bus rides can often be lost time for kids.

“I thought a lot about all the missed opportunities that our students have as a result of having to spend two hours a day on a bus,” Blais continued. “It’s not as if these students can be doing homework on the bus, the roads we were riding on were back-country roads.”

Striking a hopeful note, Blais said transportation reimbursements have been increasing in her four years in office, but there is still work to be done because the problem needs to be addressed at its roots, which include an aging population and lack of economic opportunities in the Pioneer Valley.

“Until we address all of these issues, in terms of jobs and schools, we are going to continue to see this population decline,” Blais said. “We see it as being interrelated in this report and interrelated on a larger scale.”

Pisani, a Student Council representative at Gateway’s School Committee meetings, said he is hopeful state officials are paying attention to the struggles of rural school districts and provide more opportunities for the people who live this experience to share their thoughts by “making sure there is a seat at the table for every level of education,” which includes students, teachers and administrators.

“I think every student has a really great amount of potential to do incredible things,” Pisani said. “And I think that it is on the state, it’s on our school district, it’s on our communities to help provide the basic and fundamental resources for every student to have their shot, to have their chance.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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