The Lamoille South school district will pay about 20 percent more next year to transport kids in Morristown, Stowe and Elmore to and from school and extracurricular events.
The price increase comes as the school district enters a contract with a single bus company instead of two of them, as is the case now — a reflection of Lamoille South as a single merged school district.
Morristown-based Lamoille Valley Transportation has been awarded a three-year contract to bus students in all three towns. The cost: $964,200 a year.
Compared to the 2019-20 contract, that’s an increase of $179,300. But compared to what Lamoille South actually paid in 2018-19, it’s a $221,456 bump in cost.
Lamoille Valley already provides the buses for Elmore and Morristown students, while Stowe uses Percy Transportation. But Percy’s owner is retiring at the end of the school year, and Lamoille Valley was the sole bidder for the contract.
That’s largely because it’s hard for the bus industry to find people to get behind the wheel.
Chris Kemper of First Student, a national bus company with contracts in a few Vermont school districts, told VTDigger last fall that Vermont’s low unemployment rate makes it tough to fill any job that requires a commercial driver’s license.
“The crux of it is the labor market. Our unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in decades,” Kemper said.
Some school districts have asked existing staff members to get commercial driver’s licenses and handle some bus routes. If that doesn’t work, they cancel or consolidate routes, which has led to angry phone calls from parents — especially at the beginning of the school year — upset that their kids have to walk farther, or be driven, to the bus stop.
“Other bus companies are having trouble filling their ranks with drivers,” Lamoille South board chair David Bickford said at last week’s board meeting, when the board accepted the bus contract and firmed up the 2020-21 budget proposal for voters to consider.
The increase with Lamoille Valley comes entirely from the base contract — the extracurricular cost, for taking students to sporting events and field trips, remains the same. And the base contract includes a couple of new costs.
One is an additional $15,425 to bus students in Stowe’s Friday Program, which lets kids out of school on Friday afternoon for skiing, skating, bowling, or other activities. Andy Lundeen, the Lamoille South finance director, said Lamoille Valley isn’t comfortable with the ski racks that Percy uses on its buses, so it will use equipment trailers instead.
A larger new cost, $46,500, is to bus students who attend the Green Mountain Technical and Career Center. Two routes are needed for that, for tech center students from Peoples Academy and from Stowe High School.
Lundeen told the board Stowe sends between two and six students to the tech center, while PA sends about 20. Stowe board member Tiffany Donza balked at that.
“To transport two students to the tech center is hard for me to stomach,” Donza said.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend said state law requires districts to provide transportation to the tech center, which means a dedicated bus for each high school. Even then, the tech center bus is getting back to the respective high schools just in time for students to then catch their normal bus home.
“There is no easy, painless way to do this,” Bickford said.
Percy Transportation owner Elaine Percy is retiring at the end of the school year, after 30 years of driving the bus, and doing everything else associated with running a bus company. In addition to running dispatch and keeping up with maintenance on the fleet, she still gets behind the wheel, driving sports teams to and from games and filling in when a driver is out.
Dana Percy, Elaine’s father-in-law, started the company in the 1960s. She started working there in 1989 and bought it from Dana in 2004.
Percy said she recently talked with a coach who has a son in high school. The coach used to ride her bus when he was at Stowe High, and the two shared a laugh about the memories.
“It’s mixed emotions,” she said.
Also at last week’s meeting, the board received a letter from the Morristown Planning Council, asking it to attend a council meeting the very next night to discuss proposed changes in the education chapter of its town plan.
The planning council’s letter laid out three items it wants to add to the town plan:
• Retain Peoples Academy’s “longstanding function” as a high school if any future mergers of the Lamoille South schools occur, because the council “feels that is of paramount importance to the health and well-being of this community that its teenagers can walk to school.”
• Support adding a new school access point — other than Copley Avenue from the village to the high school and from Route 15A to Morristown Elementary School and the road connecting the two schools.
• And should the town continue to support the idea of a second gym or fieldhouse at PA, “considering the school’s flat enrollment and the voters recently turning down the funding for a similar request.”
The planning council letter was not well-received by the school board. Some on the board remember that about a year ago the Morristown Planning Council proposed making PA the high school for Lamoille South, and turning Stowe into the merged district’s middle school.
“It’s always interesting that the planning council has these discussions, but don’t come here,” school board member Stephanie Craig of Morristown said. “It would have been nice to see them here tonight.”
Stowe member Norm Williams said that, while “it would be wonderful if this was a walkable school system for time immemorial,” the town plan needs to actually fit with the new reality — that Morristown is no longer a standalone school district, but part of a united whole.
Bickford fumed at the suggestion that the school board just accept the town’s proposals for education in Morristown.
Said Bickford, “To have a discussion about topics of mutual interest means to have a discussion about topics of mutual interest, not get a proposal made from whole cloth handed to us.”