BARRE — Busing students to and from school may not be educationally necessary, but the school board has concluded that — at least in Barre — it isn’t optional either.
Confronted with the plain language of the land-use permit that was issued 19 years ago for the city’s elementary school, the board voted unanimously Monday night to abandon its plan to warn a citywide vote on eliminating funding for all student transportation.
A participant in the permit process for the school told the board that eliminating student transportation wasn’t something they — or even the city’s voters — could decide without the consent of the District 5 Environmental Commission.
“I really don’t think this (board) is the body that can make this (busing) decision,” Joelen Mulvaney said, suggesting if school officials hadn’t obtained a jurisdictional opinion in the matter they should.
A member of the group Barre Association for Responsible Education and Government, Mulvaney said she was intimately familiar with a permit that was the product of a well-documented, rigorous and at times contentious Act 250 review.
“The traffic issue was huge,” she recalled, suggesting the board didn’t have the luxury of ignoring permit conditions and evidence-driven findings with regard to a project that her group once opposed for a variety of reasons.
Responding to a question posed by Mulvaney, Superintendent John Bacon said he hadn’t contacted the District 5 office in the wake of the board’s split decision this month to warn busing as a separate ballot item. However, Chairman Lucas Herring said after reviewing the land-use permit for the school that it appeared clear that dropping busing from a recently defeated school budget was at best premature.
“I don’t think we can actually have busing gone without a plan in place,” said Herring, who conceded that absent an amendment to the permit it appeared the district is required to bus the vast majority of the school’s students.
That news was welcomed by board members who were on the short end of a 4-3 vote two weeks ago, as well as two members who missed that meeting but would have changed the outcome had they been present. Anita Ristau and John Steinman said there wouldn’t have been a tie for Herring to break if they’d been at the meeting because both would have opposed the motion suggesting that funding for busing be warned as a separate ballot item.
On Monday, Ristau said conditions in the school’s Act 250 permit rendered the matter moot and urged the board to reconsider what she believed was a short-sighted decision.
“I feel we have an obligation to get our children here safely,” Ristau said. “We’re not in a neighborhood. It’s not an easy place to walk to (and) it’s not a safe place to walk to.”
How children would get to and from a centralized school on the southern fringe of the city was the subject of extensive testimony more than two decades ago during a review process conducted in the wake of the school district’s decision to abandon its once-walkable network of neighborhood schools. So was how traffic generated by the school would affect several key city intersections. Evidence presented by the school district and relied upon by the commission at the time was based on the assumption roughly 80 percent of the school’s students would be bused.
Though the Act 250 issue drove the board to reverse its earlier decision and add roughly $582,000 for busing back into the failed budget that voters will be asked to approve May 14, some parents said it was the right thing to do regardless.
Jennifer Luce was one of them.
Luce, a single mom who works full time and has children who start school in the same building at different times each day, said she didn’t relish the prospect of making two daily round trips to Barre City Elementary and Middle School.
In addition to creating a burden for parents who were capable of transporting their children, Luce worried the loss of busing would create a safety risk for youngsters who would be forced to walk — in some cases long distances and in some areas on streets with no sidewalks.
“I just don’t think that it’s in the best interest of our kids,” she said.
Those who originally supported warning busing as a separate ballot item defended a decision that was born out of their frustration involving voters’ 652-483 rejection of the $12.4 million school budget that was on the Town Meeting Day ballot.
Linda Riddle said she considered giving voters a say on busing preferable to making wholesale cuts in a budget she said had been “absolutely stripped down to the bare bones.”
Responding to the budget defeat, the board has abandoned the planned expansion of the preschool program, for a savings of $95,000, and trimmed nearly $30,000 due to a lower-than-projected health insurance increase. It has also cut funding for one bus, an estimated $45,000, bringing the bottom line to just over $12.2 million, an increase of $1.15 million, or 10.4 percent.
“For me there is nothing left to cut to make the budget less,” Riddle said.
Board member Sonya Spaulding agreed.
“I would rather see something, which to me is as simple as getting children here, go away than to have to do away with staff and the people who support the staff,” she said.
Spaulding, who serves as chairwoman of the board’s finance committee, said most of the increase is tied to a projected rise in special education expenses. The regular education budget — including plans to hire an assistant principal and an additional fifth-grade teacher — is up about $300,000.
“That’s a drop in the bucket,” she said.
While the school district may have an obligation to bus students, Spaulding said she believed parents had an obligation to the school.
“It is your responsibility to go vote and support our school,” she said. “Every single time we put the budget on the ballot it’s important for you to show up and vote.”
Since the budget went down to defeat earlier this month, board members have lamented what they’ve described as a disappointing turnout, while expressing interest in finding new ways to get people to the polls.
Putting busing on the ballot as a stand-alone item was one of those ways, though some board members characterized it as punitive and a “threat,” while worrying it could backfire in a big way if funding for busing was defeated. That was before questions about the school’s permit entered into the equation.
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