By Tom Brown
Students at Main Street Middle School (MSMS) in Montpelier would no longer have to navigate traffic and icy sidewalks and their parents would no longer have to explain why they were late for work if a plan to provide busing is approved as part of the 2019–20 school budget in March.
The plan to add two bus routes at a total cost of about $120,000 is included in the budget proposal now being considered by school board members, who must finalize the spending plan before it goes on the Town Meeting Day ballot. The proposal is among very few additions to the annual spending plan, which in year two of the merged Montpelier-Roxbury district would rise about 2.7 percent. The budget process has just begun and not all the state data is known so the impact on the school tax rate is not yet known.
Also included in the initial $23.7 million budget proposal are requests for a full-time human resources specialist to assist the more than 200 district employees and a full-time social-emotional learning coordinator to train and support staff members in addressing what school officials say is a rise in behavioral issues in the schools. Increased personnel costs, such as health insurance, along with debt service make up the rest of the 2.68 percent increase in spending over the 2018–19 level. Unlike many Vermont school districts, Montpelier’s enrollment is rising and will see an increase of more than 100 students by the 2022–23 school year, projections show.
Parents have pushed for middle school busing for many years as a way to improve safety for students, to ease traffic congestion around the Main Street building, and to provide options for parents who sometimes sacrifice employment opportunities in order to get their kids to and from school.
New Superintendent Libby Bonesteel, when hired went last summer, went on a literal and figurative “road show” to meet with the community and listen to their wants and needs. The lack of middle school bus service was a common refrain, she said.
“One of the things that came up pretty much from nearly everyone was transportation for the middle schoolers,” said Bonesteel, who also has a child in the school system. “Many parents who I spoke with were talking about how they were making career decisions based on whether or not they could get their kids to school.”
One of those parents, Carrie Stahler, took Bonesteel on a road trip around the district, where she saw the distances students had to walk and how some routes lacked sidewalks. Walking from areas such as Towne Hill Road, out Route 12 toward Northfield, far up Berlin Street, down lower State Street and elsewhere poses risk for students who walk, supporters say, not to mention our capricious weather conditions.
“In the outside reaches of the city, they are not walkable,” Bonesteel said. “I wouldn’t allow my child to walk there, and I don’t expect any of our children to. It’s a major safety issue for me as superintendent.”
Stahler and other parents wrote letters to school board members and district officials encouraging them to include busing in the budget and launched an online petition that garnered more than 200 signatures.
“I am fortunate that my employer is very supportive of my childcare needs, but many parents don’t have that luxury,” said Stahler, who has two children in Union Elementary, which provides busing, and lives off Towne Hill Road where sidewalks are inconsistent.
Jim Hutton, parent of an eighth-grader who won’t benefit from middle school busing if it is approved, has been lobbying for the service for years. The new administration, he said, has been much more receptive than previous ones.
“There are so many reasons that this makes sense,” he said. “The amount of money is relatively small for the positive impact it will have for the community.”
In addition to safety and socioeconomic benefits, supporters of busing say the service will ease traffic in the downtown core during busy commuting hours and theoretically reduce environmental impact. Hutton estimates that a parent driving his or her child to and from MSMS over their grades 5–8 years makes 1,400 trips in and out of town.
“I don’t think that makes sense in a city that is trying to get to net zero (energy use) and a city that consistently supports busing for residents in the downtown core (through GMTA),” Hutton said.
Bonesteel stressed that parents should not be concerned by the addition of middle schoolers to the bus routes.
“School systems do that all across Vermont,” she said. “The bus company (Student Transportation of Vermont) works with the ages of the students. The kindergarten kids sit up front and the older students sit toward the back.” Buses also have monitors on board.
Paying for the Buses
The busing proposal would add bus routes to the three currently used to bring students to Union Elementary School. A total of five buses would carry K–8 students to and from both schools, shortening the routes, said Grant Geisler, the district’s business manager. That would increase the district’s total bus fleet to seven, including the bus that serves Roxbury Village School and the bus that carries Roxbury students to Main Street and the high school.
Geisler said the $120,000 price tag will be mitigated as the state reimburses schools for 40 percent of their transportation costs, but there is a two-year lag in payment. Therefore, the district’s cost would be reduced to $72,000 over time. The district will also receive a six-cent tax decrease in FY 2020 as an incentive for merging under Act 46 requirements. However, that is deceiving because it received an eight-cent decrease last year under the state’s system that reduces the incentive by two cents each year until gone.
The impact of the merger with Roxbury is also lessening as tuition paid for Roxbury students in grades 9–12 who were already attending other high schools phases out. The district budgeted for 26 students in FY 2019 but has been billed for only 18. Next year it is budgeting for 12.
The administration presented its budget proposal to the school board on December 5 in Montpelier and on December 19 in Roxbury. The next budget discussion will take place January 2 in Montpelier. The board will ultimately determine the final amount to be put to voters in March.