Anthony Ferrucci, Chief Budget Officer for the district, said the previous FY20 bus transportation budget will realize a surplus of between $2.8 million and $4 million, which can carried over into the FY21 budget and applied to the FY21 budget as the School Committee deems fit.
“Those funds would be identified in early July. The School Committee can wrestle with how those dollars may be used at the next meeting scheduled for July 14,” said Ferrucci.
“While the dollars are real, on one level I consider it a mirage,” said School Committee Member David Testa, referring to money not spent on transportation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the district into distance learning for several weeks at the end of the school year. “It was the result of truly, purely extraordinary circumstance. I can say with certainty that unless there’s an outbreak of bubonic plague next year, that fund balances like this just are not coming. So we have to be cognizant of that.”
Chairwoman Karen Bachus, Testa, and Kyle Adams were in favor of cutting the FY21 bus budget, while Vice Chair Judy Cobden and Nathan Cornell voted against.
Just how bus transportation will be handled as schools organize a return to in-person classes in the fall, and how much that will cost, remains to be seen.
Ferrucci said a task force made up of various subcommittees would be exploring three different options for the reopening of schools. The committees will be creating budgets and determining what those impacts would be. A transportation subcommittee will also analyze guidelines and opportunities for consolidation and the impact of bus runs with only half-full buses, due to pandemic physical distancing concerns.
Additional X-factors in the FY21 budget include delayed notice on how much state aid the district will receive, and a potential lifeline in the form of federal COVID-19 relief for schools, Ferrucci said.
COVID-19 increases bus, driver demand
“What I am concerned about is the state guidelines in respect to transportation,” said Testa. “We really need to be able to provide safe and healthy transportation to students.”
Testa said RIDE mandated only one child per seat unless they’re siblings, which meant the district would have to acquire 40 to 50 additional buses to transport all the students who need a ride to and from school.
“If we can’t provide it because we can’t get the extra buses, then who decides who rides?” Testa asked. “I think we have to keep looking at various ways we can try to make this work.”
“Right now, the buses don’t exist,” Bachus said. “We don’t really have a solution to transport our students to school this time. We cannot safely transport our students. We just don’t have enough buses, we don’t have enough licensed bus drivers, even bus monitors are an issue because we need to make sure students act in a way that is safe and healthy.”
“It’s an untenable, unwinnable situation,” said Andrew Henneous, legal counsel for the school department.
Bachus said special education students would be receiving transportation to school.
Additional savings realized for FY21 budget
Ferrucci explained that with a new contract awarded to Effective Solutions, the school department was able to save $200,000 for out of district tuitions.
The district was also able to reduce the budget by $25,000 by price-locking its electricity service.
Additionally, several expenditures budgeted for FY21 were made in FY20 instead, including supplies for Veterans Middle School, library books for the elementary schools and athletic soccer supplies, and a tech education program. Those early expenditures saved the district $49,000 in FY21, Ferrucci said. Together, those savings reduced the amount needed to be cut from the FY21 budget to $6,075,000, which was settled with the cut from the busing line item.
The next school committee meeting will be held on July 14.