By Noor Adatia
BU News Service
BOSTON — State legislators along with school officials are reexamining the commonwealth’s commitment to fully reimburse all regional transportation costs — a promise that has never been met by the government.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the state pledged years ago to reimburse the regional transportation costs of schools.
“It was part of an original commitment that if you regionalize schools, then the state will provide an incentive by paying for the busing,” Hinds said. “We’ve never really done that.”
A special commission established last year by Hinds and state Sen. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, met this week to discuss ways to streamline student transportation costs and increase efficiencies.
Hinds said the commission plans on drafting recommendations for Gov. Charlie Baker to make the school transportation system more effective.
He also noted that other municipal schools — including special education and private schools — have felt left out from receiving assistance to cover transportation costs.
“Another goal is looking at a wider approach to funding in general,” he said.
The Student Opportunity Act — which the Senate unanimously passed last month — did not deal with transportation directly and allowed the special commission to do that work, Hinds said.
“It’s a big part of funding in that equation and how we put more money into classrooms and getting that right is important,” he said.
The commission has invited several leaders in education, including superintendents, school committee representatives and even bus drivers to testify and voice their concerns with costs related to school transportation.
Dan Hayes, who serves on the Shutesbury School Committee and is part of the commission, said that transportation costs are expensive for schools to cover.
“I think there needs to be stronger support from the state in providing reimbursement for the districts,” Hayes said.
Hayes, who attended the hearing, also chairs the board of the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton, which provides special education and professional development services to member school districts.
He said that because many special education students are placed in schools outside of their district, transportation costs are high.
“Sometimes the costs to transport them is exorbitant, and it is difficult for small communities to pay for that,” Hayes said.
High costs also apply to transport homeless students and students in foster care, Hayes said.
In addition, the commission has been looking into environmentally-conscious initiatives such as rolling out electric buses and encouraging more students to carpool or bike to school.
Hayes said that he thinks this is more of a public health issue and is more concerned about the well-being of students who are exposed to a polluted environment.
“My priority is to make sure kids aren’t exposed to particles and diesel fumes, so I do think there’s an opportunity there,” he said.
Moreover, according to testimony at the hearing, districts have had difficulty paying bus companies.
Hayes said the commission has looked into districts purchasing smaller vans which can be driven by their own staff, instead of paying outside bus drivers.
“The cost is generally reduced because they can use their own staff,” he said. “That might be an example of savings for some districts.”
The commission is also looking into starting a program to train and license potential bus drivers because of the current shortage of independent drivers.
“I think that if we share best practices with other districts, it might give one district an idea of what another district is doing,” he said.
Hays said he credits Hinds and Peisch for putting the commission together.
“We are all listening to each other and trying to build consensus in how we can make solid recommendations for the governor,” Hayes said.
Hinds said he is hopeful the special commission will have a recommendation before the end of the year, or certainly before going into next year’s budget.
“It has been a very inclusive process to hear people who grapple with these issues every day,” he said.
He noted that in the end, every school district in the commonwealth will benefit from the restructuring of transportation costs and reimbursements.
This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.