The big question on parents’ minds as summer comes to a close is “Will my child be able to take the bus to school this year?” At last week’s school board meeting, chief operating officer Brian Donahue said, “The answer is: yes – but.”
In the first board meeting since the middle of June, Donahue presented the next series of transportation updates for the Essex Westford School District, which left some board members with questions and concerns.
Donahue explained on the first day of school, students who have had transportation in the past will continue to receive it, with some changes. Routes will look different and include more congregated stops.
Donahue also said the district is looking into using pre-existing public transportation, as South Burlington and Burlington students do. With a pass, high school students have access to the bus six days a week, he said.
He added this solution is much cheaper than having private EWSD buses, which cost approximately $4.50 per day to bus one student, whereas one Green Mountain Transit ride costs merely 60 cents.
In addition, K-3 Hiawatha and Summit Street students who live out of the half-mile walking radius will also receive transportation on the first day of school.
However, the plans for the rest of the district are less concrete. Donahue said as drivers come into the fold after the first quarter around October, new routes will be created and transportation will become available to village students, starting with elementary and eventually working up to middle and high school-aged students.
Board members were concerned with the lack of a solid plan, noting that licensing enough new drivers was not a guarantee. Donahue admitted to the difficulty of getting enough drivers and apologized for not having all of the answers right away.
“I’m delivering the news I don’t want to deliver and certainly not the news any of you want to hear,” he said. “I don’t expect to be off the hook.”
Donahue said the transportation team ran into several issues during the process, including keeping high school arrival and dismissal times the same and recruiting bus drivers.
The transportation team received dozens of responses to the job postings, a major improvement over last year when it only got one, Donahue said. However, there were setbacks, he added, noting candidates who use recently-legalized CBD products failed drug tests and the district didn’t have enough time to test and license drivers before school begins.
Currently, three new employees are licensed to drive buses on the first day of school, with several more in the pipeline to start after the first quarter, Donahue said.
Keeping consistent start times will allow students from surrounding communities to attend the Center for Technology, Essex. Donahue explained there is not enough turnaround time for the elementary school buses to be reused for the high school bus loops, meaning more drivers and more buses are needed.
To fix the issue, Essex Jct. residents grades four and up will have to wait until more drivers are licensed for new bus routes to be created.
Some board members questioned whether this decision is equitable for Essex Jct. residents who still do not receive busing.
“Essex Jct. residents have been footing the transportation bill for Essex and Westford for multiple years now … and we are continually missing out on it,” EWSD board member Patrick Murray said. “The drivers that we have now, in my opinion, should be distributed to the youngest, K-8, throughout the district, because I think frankly that Essex Jct. is done paying for transportation that we are not getting.”
EWSD board member Keeley Schell was concerned with the lack of communication and urged the transportation team to keep the board in the loop so parents know what to expect as the summer draws to a close.
“More communication is better,” echoed board chairwoman Martha Heath. “Keeping us in the loop all the time I think doesn’t have to wait for a board meeting.”
While the subject of transportation was not an official action item on the agenda, the board voted to continue with the plan Donahue presented and agreed to work diligently to provide busing for Essex Jct. students as soon as possible.
“Essex Jct., at this point, is owed,” board member Diane Clemens said. “I want to see the kids in my neighborhood not walking on the street, as they do now, in the middle of winter.”