School Committee hears plan to reduce busing services

Mar 21, 2013

The School Department may transport fewer students next year in an effort to close the $120,000 gap between what it says it needs to run the Transportation Department at its current level, and what the cash-strapped town can provide.

Transportation Manager Jeff Tatro on Wednesday presented the School Committee with a plan that would reduce the number of buses in service from 22 to 16, and thus reduce the number of drivers necessary to transport students.

The plan would require students in grades five through 12 who live within one mile of their respective school to walk to school.

"That is one mile from front door to front door," Tatro explained.

The plan eliminates the 10 to 20 minutes of time that some drivers have between finishing their middle school bus runs and beginning their elementary school runs.

"We're now taking that 20 minutes and jamming in a run," Tatro told the School Committee. "You're going to be having these buses go go go go, and the drivers go go go."

School Committee members worried whether the bus drivers would be able to pull off such a tight schedule.

"When you need to solve a problem, you need to bring it to the people who are closest to the problem," said Superintendent Dr. Barry Rabinovitch. "Jeff Tatro went back to his drivers and sat with a group of his drivers" to see if they though the proposal would work.

Tatro reported that the drivers are on board.

"No one says this is going to be easy," Tatro noted. "It's going to be a challenge. ... But this is, honestly, a plan I think is doable."

It was the first time that Tatro had presented the fleshed out plan to the School Committee, though he'd mentioned that such a thing might work during a February meeting.

Parents affected by the plan have not yet been contacted, and School Committee members agreed that they wanted to hear from those parents before taking a vote on the proposal.

Members also worried about the safety of walkers.

"We look at this from a budgetary perspective, but I really feel in my heart of hearts, and also in my irrational brain, that it is our responsibility to transport our children," said School Committee member Cliff Sylvia. "This is all emotional for me. I can't stand the picture of a 5th grade kid walking to school down Route 6."

Member Ken Fontes was succinct, saying: "I do not support any kids walking."

Rabinovitch was prepared to ask the School Committee to approve the proposal on Wednesday, but decided after the discussion to withdraw his recommendation. School Committee members pointed out that they could see if April Town Meeting voters will approve the department's full $1.6 million request.

"I would like to respectfully withdraw this recommendation ... until after Town Meeting and we know what our numbers are," said Rabinovitch.

School Committee Chair Geoff Swett noted: "We shouldn't have any illusions about the fiscal situation changing between now and Town Meeting," but added, "I just look at this as something we have in our back pocket and if we have to use it, we have to use it."

The School Department is requesting $1.6 million to fund the transportation budget next year. It currently transports all students who wish to ride a bus. The state mandates that any student in kindergarten through 6th grade be transported if they live more than two miles from school.

In addition to reducing the funding gap, the plan would allow for the money in the Transportation Department's "revolving fund" to be saved for the purchase of much-needed buses. The "revolving fund" contains the money generated by the department through transporting other districts' students, among other things.

The proposal would affect 45 students at the high school and 83 students at the middle school (5th grade students will be housed at Wareham Middle School beginning next year). It was not clear whether any of those students, despite having the option to ride the bus now, currently choose to walk to school.

Wareham High School would start approximately 10 minutes earlier in the morning and dismiss 10 minutes earlier. Wareham Middle would start approximately five minutes later.