Struggling Randolph ends school bus service
RANDOLPH - The yellow school bus - that icon of childhood, as familiar to students as reading, writing, and arithmetic - has made its last stop in Randolph, a victim of budget cuts.
The cuts, made in April and announced to parents in June, went into effect this week with the start of the new school year, forcing roughly a third of Randolph's 3,400 students to find their own way to class.
State and local education officials knew of no other community that had made such a drastic move in recent years, partly because under state law, schools must provide busing to children through sixth grade if they live more than 2 miles away.
But these are trying times for many communities, as they struggle to pay the bills in the face of higher costs, flat budgets, or voters unwilling to approve property tax increases through Proposition 2½ overrides. In Randolph, school officials say, three such overrides have failed since 2003. Last spring, the Randolph School Committee got creative.
Desperate to make cuts anywhere they could, officials circumvented the state busing law by redistricting its elementary schools this year and transferring students to schools near their homes. And then, to the horror of parents accustomed to seeing their children to the bus stop every morning, Randolph officials cut busing for everyone except special education students and foreign students in need of extra schooling.
"We have to wake up at four in the morning to make sure that everyone can shower, eat breakfast, and get to school on time because I don't trust them walking," said Martha Baum, a single mother of three children. "Now I have to start my job at 10 a.m. because the school doesn't start until 9 a.m."
The savings for the town: Roughly $500,000.
"I grew up in Randolph," said Larry Azer, the School Committee chairman in Randolph, where 1,002 students rode the bus last year. "I took the bus to school. It's nice and convenient. But by law of the Commonwealth, not everybody is required to get busing. And when you have to make ends meet, we'd rather keep teachers in the classroom than buses."
Many communities are cutting services such as street lights and sports programs, but times are especially hard in Randolph, a town just south of Boston with a population of roughly 30,000. In the past five years, school budgets have not increased while costs have soared, said Richard Silverman, superintendent of schools. Consequently, he said, the School Committee has had to slash more than $12 million in services.
Previous cuts have led to the elimination of 27 elementary school teachers, 13 high school teachers, the band instructor at the middle school, the remedial reading program for young children, and one elementary school.
Facing level funding again this year, the School Committee had to make still more cuts to meet its $29.6 million budget. That meant laying off nearly 30 more teachers across the district. Gone was yet another school - the Devine Early Education Center. Foreign language classes at the middle school are gone and at the high school, too, for the most part: When classes began there this week, only Spanish was being offered.
But what has people talking the most is the absence of yellow school buses, with their blinking lights and electronic stop signs.
"If you don't have a parent to drive you, if you live too far to walk, if you're someone vulnerable out there by yourself, it is a specific challenge," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, who, along with officials at the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the state Department of Education, had never heard of a community completely cutting bus service. "There's no easy way around it. But I can tell you that I'm not aware of anybody who's cut transportation service with enthusiasm. It's always a last-resort measure."
That was of little consolation to parents like Mark Hatfield, who walked his son, 6, to school yesterday. "I have to walk 3 miles to get here, and I have to walk my son 3 miles back," said Hatfield, who does not own a car and may have been exaggerating the distance, given the law. "It pretty much stinks."
Silverman expressed concern that it will get worse, that the absence of buses will increase tardiness and decrease attendance. He wonders what will happen to families walking to school, once the cold weather sets in. "It presents some real obstacles for getting kids to school," he said. "Remember, we're talking about 6-year-olds, 7-year-olds, and 8-year-olds walking up to 2 miles."
For some, such as little Alycia Baum, the walking is not the worst part. Baum, a first-grader at Elizabeth G. Lyons Elementary School, lives a few blocks from the school. Baum is 6, 4 feet tall, missing her two front teeth, and wears her hair in pigtails. For her, the bus was not just a ride; it was a rite of passage, snapped away by fiscal matters that she may someday understand. "On the bus I see all my friends and all my classmates," she said. "But now that I don't see them anymore I feel kind of sad."