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BREAKING NEWS — School bus transportation funds restored


Gov. Patrick reverses earlier decision



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File photo/ Shawn Kelley. (click for larger version)
December 29, 2009
Two months after $18 million was cut from the state's $40 million region school transportation budget, Gov. Deval Patrick recanted on Monday, Dec. 28, and restored the funds — to the surprise of area school officials.

"The action of the governor just yesterday is like a life raft in otherwise turbulent waters," said Superintendent Sean Gilrein of the Dudley-Charlton School District on Tuesday, following the Monday, Dec. 28 announcement that the money, which is doled out proportionally as reimbursement to the regional districts, was restored.

Had the $18 million actually been removed from the available funds, Gilrein's district would have had to absorb more than $600,000 during the current year, and assess the following year's shortfall to the two towns in fiscal 2011 just to maintain its current transportation plan.

In preparation of having to deal with the shortfall in 2011, Gilrein said three bus routes were cut, enrollment permitting, saving the district nearly $100,000 and that most special needs transportation was contracted out to a different provider than in years past, saving an additional $50,000.

"Charlton and Dudley would have been required by law to fund the shortfall in student transportation, and based on the initial numbers, it could have been between $750,000-$850,000 shared between the two towns," Gilrein said.

That would have held true for the 10 towns that collectively pay for Bay Path Regional Technical Vocational High School, which was looking at a $215,000 shortfall if the cut remained permanent.

"We were going to cover the $215,000 out of our own reserves because it was too late in the year to go back to the towns for that money," said Bay Path Business Manager John LaFleche. "Next year, the towns were going to have to pick up the extra $215,000 but if they appropriate $40 million again next year that would be a cumulative $215,000 saving from the 10 towns."

For the Spencer-East Brookfield district, a $190,000 reduction on top of $175,000 cut during the first round of state-level budget reductions, would have been supplemented by an excess and deficiency account for the remainder of the current school year, but like all other regional districts, would have been stuck in a corner come fiscal 2011.

"It would have meant [excess and deficiency] money wouldn't have been there to protect teachers' jobs," Superintendent Dr. Ralph E. Hicks said Tuesday.

Having already made drastic reductions to books and supplies among other things, Hicks said any further financial strain would have been detrimental to the district.

"We can't cut any more without doing severe damage," Hicks said, adding the he was, "pleasantly surprised, but nevertheless surprised," when he heard the transportation money was put back in the state's piggy bank.

Superintendent Brett Kustigian of Quaboag Regional School District said that region was looking at just more than $100,000 in transportation cuts, but much like Spencer-East Brookfield, has been relieved of having to eliminate any positions now that the money has been restored.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Kustigian said. "It's good news for the entire district, and it

eliminates potential cuts and job losses within the district."

Although the announcement of Gov. Patrick's about-face comes as a major relief to all school personnel, some districts already began making moves to combat what they thought was an impending cut that have impacted students.

Daniel G. Durgin, superintendent of the Tantasqua and Union 61 districts said some activities, like freshman basketball and junior varsity cheerleading were cut in order to free up some money. That money is no longer necessary, but it is too late in the season for either of those organizations to be rescued — at least for this year.

Durgin, like many superintendents was in the position to have to look at reductions in staff to cope with what would have been a $214,000 shortfall.

"We were planning on reducing three staff members and we'll certainly be looking to replace some of those staff members," he said.

"It was effecting students," Durgin continued. "So I'm glad that they did overturn it and reallocate the $40 million for the overall transportation."

One major point all superintendents agree on is the debt of gratitude owed to state senators and representatives who lobbied to get Patrick to change his mind.

Among them was Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, who was one of nearly 60 Massachusetts lawmakers endorsing and circulating a letter expressing deep concern over the cut.

Brewer was also part of a contingent of senators that met with Secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez to discuss the possibility of using federal stimulus funds to offset the cuts.

In a written statement issued Monday, Brewer said, "I don't think anyone was surprised that Gov. Patrick cut this account, given the very real fiscal challenges the Commonwealth faces. What was shocking was the sheer amount by which it was reduced in comparison to the other education accounts," Brewer said. "Regional school districts build their budgets based on regional school transportation figures and to find out four months into the fiscal year that an unexpected deficit now needs to be closed because the state isn't able to pay for it, that's a significant challenge."

"I am thrilled that Gov. Patrick and his team recognized the importance of this funding," Brewer said of the decision to reinstate the $18 million.

Lawmakers were not the only people putting pen to paper to express their concerns.

Hicks hand delivered just such a letter to Patrick days after the cut was first announced.

"We spoke about it at some length, and he said he'd take it under some consideration," Hicks said. "I couldn't be happier."

In a letter of thanks to Patrick, issued Tuesday, Kustigian said, "In this troubling and uncertain economic environment, every single penny counts. By restoring regional school transportation, you have helped us by eliminating potential cuts and job losses."

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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