A Western Massachusetts state senator has been tapped to lead a commission on public school transportation.
State Senator Adam Hinds, a Democrat of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District, has been appointed to co-chair the commission by Senate President Karen E. Spilka that was established by the 2019 state budget.
“Well, I’ve been making a lot of noise on regional school transportation and education budgets in general. And so, the squeaky wheel gets the attention I guess,” he told WAMC.
Hinds’ district comprises the westernmost end of the state – a hilly, sparsely populated area with a pair of small cities in the Berkshires – Pittsfield and North Adams.
“When we talk about education funding, one of the pots of money that has been a real problem – especially for our rural schools- is regional school transportation reimbursement," said Hinds. "There was a fundamental promise by the state to – if municipalities and if town were to increase and regionalize school districts, transportation costs would be reimbursed at one hundred percent. That has not happened.”
State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report in October 2017 that called for the state to fulfill its commitment to 100% funding for regional transportation and to overhaul its relationship with its 58 regional school districts and their almost 107,000 students.
In Berkshire County, there are ten separate school districts that represent a range of communities – each with their own distinct needs.
“School transportation in the commonwealth, there are multiple layers to it. There’s regular, everyday regular ed transportation. Those are the school buses that drive around and pick up kids every day. School buses that drive around and drop kids off at home every afternoon. Then there’s transportation for special education and disabled students, there’s vocational transportation, and then there’s a piece that sort of often bleeds into vocational transportation, which is regional transportation," said Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless. He oversees a student body of almost 5,400. Because it’s not a regional district, it receives no state money for transportation needs.
“In Berkshire County, there’s several districts – a Lee, a Lenox, a North Adams, for instance – that run buses sometimes great distances picking up kids to bring them to school- there’s no reimbursement from the commonwealth," the superintendent told WAMC. "Whereas our regional neighbors – Central Berkshires, Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshires, Adams-Cheshire, those kinds of places- soon to be Williamstown-Greylock-Lanesborough – they actually get a percentage of reimbursement.”
Dr. Peter Dillon is the superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which has just over 1,200 students. He says the level of reimbursement the district has received ranges from 30 to 70 percent, though he estimates that this year it will cover 80 percent of expenditures.
“Each year, districts are losing money and resources and they’re forced to make up those costs with local funds and money that could be going to teachers is going towards paying for buses,” Dillon told WAMC.
This school year, he estimates that Berkshire Hills will spend upwards of $350,000 on transportation. Dillon says that could pay the salaries of five to six fulltime teachers.
“Bigger than bussing and transportation are the rising in costs of health insurance, of special needs or special education costs, of working with English language learners, so I’m hoping this puts a spotlight on a funding formula that’s broken and we start here fixing transportation costs and reimbursement but it opens up a wider conversation,” he continued.
In the meantime, Hinds and his commission of 11 will begin their work.
“We’re mandated to have at least five public meetings," said the state senator. "We’ll be taking a very close look at best practices and policies that other states have taken on, and really understand how schools are going about their transportation methods and do an assessment of their costs and their budgets and come out with a set of recommendation by the end of 2019 that we can hopefully take action on in 2020.”