The fees for the bus go up and up
Parents are paying the price for reductions to local school budgets

By Connie Paige, Globe Correspondent | September 23, 2007

Debora Hoard's three children have ridden the school bus every year since the first day they went to class.

But this year, because of escalating fees, the Lexington mother said her high school senior, sophomore, and eighth-grader are finding other ways to reach the schoolhouse door. They take public transportation, pedal a bike, or catch a ride.

"If the bus was free, my children would probably still be signed up for it," said Hoard, president of the Lexington Parent Teacher Student Association. "But since it was fee-based, I thought, 'OK, for my money, what gets me the best service?' "

If Hoard had opted for school bus service, her family would have paid an annual fee of $550 per child, or a total of $1,650 - the highest in the area and perhaps the state.

Like Hoard, parents throughout the northwest suburbs are reeling from annual bus fees as local districts try to make their services self-sustaining. Mounting fees have fueled calls for the state to support school transportation and kindled concerns about tailpipe pollution from a crush of parents dropping off children at school.

Over the past few years in Lexington, school officials have raised annual bus fees for every child, from $490 in 2005 to $600 this year, with a discount for early payment. Unlike many other communities, Lexington did not have a "family cap" limiting the expenses for those with more than one child. After an uproar, the community recently set a family cap of $1,600, and will return money to those who exceeded it.

Lexington parents faced a unique problem, in addition to the fees, but one that other communities might have to deal with in the future.

Officials in Lexington hiked fees so dramatically this year that fewer parents chose to use the bus by the June 15 deadline. That meant that officials ordered fewer buses. But when school began, parents had second thoughts and signed up for the bus. The last-minute dash for service meant that many buses were crowded, some with three youngsters to a seat, and late to school, sometimes by as much as a half-hour.

Mary Ellen Dunn, assistant superintendent for finance and business, said school buses transported 2,400 students last year, but officials expected 2,100 this year because of the higher fees. Instead, only 1,600 signed up by June, but, by the start of school, the list numbered 1,900, Dunn said.

It was the unreliability of the buses that drove Jeanne Hobbs to decide to drive her three children to school - even after she paid $1,650 in fees.

Still, Hobbs said she supports as "an admirable goal" the attempt to make the buses pay for themselves. But she believes it has been a no-win situation.

"Certainly we should be paying for the services we're getting … but it does have the effect of driving people away from the buses, which increases the price," she said. It also crowds schools at drop-off and pickup times with cars emitting noxious fumes, she said.

Typical of other parents around the area, Hobbs said she appreciates "the dilemma" of officials in trying to resolve the problem.

"I fully support the School Committee because they have a tough job," she said. "I've looked at the budget, and I know they're looking to consolidate, and I know … they're in a very bad situation.

"I'm not an economist, so I don't know the solution."

Donald Benson, father of two at Lexington's Estabrook Elementary School, offered a partial solution when he attended a School Committee meeting this month.

Benson, who stopped using the school bus because of cost and tardiness, said the question of high fees should be put to the entire community, with an appeal for more taxpayer support.

"My concern is not just for my own pocketbook," he said. "I think it's not community-friendly, it's not family-friendly, and it's not environmentally friendly."

Most districts set an annual rate, and some, such as Lexington, do not return fees if a parent decides to forgo the service. High school students in Lawrence, however, pay $1 a day, with a limit of $180 a year. September was free, and bus passes can be purchased monthly, starting Oct. 1.

The law requires schools to transport for free students in kindergarten through Grade 6 who live more than 2 miles from an assigned school, and to waive them for families living below the poverty level. In some of the 18 communities that provide school transportation for all students without fees, officials attributed it to sound planning.

Joseph Salvo, business administrator for the Methuen school system, for example, said he and others develop the school budget "very, very cautiously. We negotiate the best possible contracts as we can, to keep costs as low as we can. We watch every penny we spend."

But no amount of planning could have braced officials for the decision by the state in 2004 to stop subsidizing 25 percent of local school transportation - leaving communities with the unexpected cost. Moreover, since then, prices for bus service have skyrocketed, with added costs for fuel, labor, and insurance.

In Andover, after the state stopped the subsidy, the $235 bus fee was hiked to $300 a child, with a $40 discount if paid by June 30.

Shari Wilson, copresident of the Doherty Middle School Parent Advisory Council in Andover, said state lawmakers should consider reinstating the transportation subsidy to help parents.

Wilson said her three children - two at middle and one at high school - are still school-bus riders, and she pays the family cap fee of $600.

"When you're faced with a decision of paying fees or program cuts," she said, "I'll go with paying the fees."

Still, Wilson said she believes the school bus bill presents a burden for the less affluent in her community. "I hope our legislators are paying attention, because fees are a form of taxation."

Bus fees become even more burdensome if students play sports or participate in other activities for which parents also have to pay.

Sharon Kendall has four children in the Lexington schools, but only one takes the bus, at $550. Kendall pays another $100 for that daughter, Victoria, to play varsity soccer this fall, and, if she makes the softball team in spring, the family will pony up $100 more.

"You feel like you're getting hit up," said Kendall, copresident of the Hastings Parent Teacher Association.

Winchester bus fees - at $525 a child, with a $920 family cap - have remained steady for three years but might rise next year when officials sign a new bus contract, said Samuel Rippin, director of finance for the schools.

Carol Cashion, who has three children in the Winchester school system, said it discriminates against families living at below the federal poverty level because, while their fees are waived, it's "a burden on families to have to identify themselves that way."

Cashion said she also fears the high fees are among a host of problems "chipping away" at support for the American right to free universal public education - which Cashion described as "a community value and a community responsibility."

Globe correspondent Alex Oster contributed to this report. Connie Paige can be reached at moc.ebolg|egiapc#moc.ebolg|egiapc.

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