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School Committee votes on bus fee recommendation

School CommitteeSHREWSBURY – It was a long process that began with the formation of the Transportation task force, appointed by Superintendent Joe Sawyer back in October to study the fee structure and other aspects surrounding the delivery of bus service to Shrewsbury school children.   The task force, looked at all communities throughout the region, analyzed those that charged fees for non-mandated bus service, and evaluated what they charge per pupil, the presence or absence of a family cap, signup dates, late fees and procedures for sign up and bus pass distribution.

The fee subcommittee of the task force, comprised of School Committee member Steve Levine, Asst Principals Dr Sara Ahearn and Kristen Gasper, and parent representative Chris Delauder, considered many different options in an attempt to increase ridership, and reduce fees across the board. After three months, and hundreds of hours of work, and survey responses by hundreds of thoughtful residents, the task force presented their findings at the School Committee meeting in early February. Their recommendations were to offer an early payment option of $199 per student for the first two in a family, and then $100 for subsequent students, for parents wishing to avail themselves of an “early payment option” for May 1st.  At the same time, they recommended removing the pre-existing family cap of $500.   The net result would have been $199 for the first student, down from $250, $398 for the first two students, down from $500, and $498 for three students, down from $500.  Part of the plan included a small processing fee for bus passes to be applied to free (mandated) riders.

The feeling of the task force was that increased ridership would more than make up for any small shortfall in revenue, and that the goodwill in the community from the fee reduction would be a huge asset as we enter a challenging budget cycle.  This was framed in the knowledge that as bus fees have increased over the last three years, ridership has consistently dropped, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

Ultimately, a ruling was issued by the state and legal counsel and  it was determined that such a “bus pass fee” was not allowed for mandated riders, and to bring revenue back up, an adjustment was made allowing for the “early payment” option of $225, which would still discount the fees but allow less revenue uncertainty.  With much discussion at the last school committee meeting, the administration was ultimately asked to come back to the table this week with their own recommendation, based on all the data.   That recommendation was presented to the Committee tonight, which called for eliminating the early payment option, but just reducing the fee to $230 for all who paid on time – a seemingly fair compromise in keeping with the public feedback on the current fee structure.

School Committee member Steve Levine, carried the torch on the need for a fee reduction, and  tried once again to persuade the committee on the concept of the $199 fee, but recognizing that some discount is better than none, Levine made a motion to accept Dr Sawyer’s recommendation for the reduced fee, and the motion was seconded by 14 year Committee member Mark Murray, who concurred that bringing fees down would hopefully bring more riders back to the system.  Retiring member John Samia spoke out against the reduction, pointing out that in these challenging times, he wasn’t prepared to take the risk that a fee reduction, no matter how small, might impact the overall budget – certainly a valid and important concern.   Sandy Fryc, School Committee secretary, concurred with Mr Samia, leaving Chairperson Erin Canzano to cast the tie breaking vote and decide the issue of fees for the coming year.

Canzano, up for re-election this year, formulated her thoughts on the matter, which she obviously has considered for a while.  She expressed her feeling that while it was nice to try and offer a discount to families in times like this, in the end, the status quo $250 fee, was a known commodity and that she was adverse to risk and didn’t want to take a chance that revenue from the program might be lower than expected and result in having to make further cuts in staff.  Her feeling was that it was a matter of “timing” and in the middle of a budget deficit lowering fees might not be prudent. Levine countered with the argument that while it is true that the “status quo” was a known commodity, that what was known was that we’ve been losing ridership year after year, and that the safe path might be to try to stem the tide of ridership loss with the fee reduction, and that it may be the best way to get the fiscal stability we want and need.   In the end, however, the nay votes couldn’t be convinced, and for the first time this year, the vote was split 3-2, with Levine and Murray voting to reduce the fees, and Fryc, Canzano and Samia voting against the reduction.  That complete, the status quo program continues, and the fee structure for next year will again be $250 per students, with a family cap of $500. An added element is that parents who sign up and later change their mind about bussing before the first day of school can get a refund, minus a $25 fee.

It was a fair and well mannered debate, handled with complete professionalism by a group of people who shared a common goal, doing what’s best for the children of our town, despite their diverse view of how to achieve that goal.  Pure democracy in action is an amazing thing to watch, and in the end, majority rules and things go on.

Hopefully the ridership will continue at the current level when people have to sign up and pay their fee by this June 1st, and that the Committee may take up the matter again down the road, with a better result that will make ridership more affordable to all of the students of the town.  Further decreases in ridership ultimate will have a serious effect on other programs.

For a link to the Transportation Task Forces findings an recommendations, click here. http://schools.shrewsbury-ma.gov/egov/docs/1263300504_354156.pdf

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