By LAURA WEICK The Warwick School Committee's decision to cut their transportation budget by $6 million may be plausible under state law, despite laws typically requiring school committees to provide transportation. According to Title 16, Chapter 16-21
The Warwick School Committee’s decision to cut their transportation budget by $6 million may be plausible under state law, despite laws typically requiring school committees to provide transportation.
According to Title 16, Chapter 16-21 Section 16-21-1 in Rhode Island’s General Laws, school districts must provide transportation to and from school for public school students. However, the school committee voted 3-2 on June 24 to cut $6 million from the $10 million transportation budget due to concerns regarding COVID-19 pandemic.
School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus said that the cut was allowed because the law permits exceptions in cases where health and safety were at risk. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said in a 2018 case in East Greenwich that school committees have a duty to provide transportation when the distance between a student’s residence and the school renders “regular attendance at school impractical.” However, the commissioner has also said factors such as age and hazard, which can include health hazard, may be relevant in transportation issues.
"[The Rhode Island Supreme Court noted that the statute] should not be read so narrowly as to preclude consideration of factors other than distance in determining whether or not a child is entitled to bus transportation,” RIDE spokesman Pete Janhunen said in a statement. “The critical issue under the statute is whether the distance the child travels is so great as to make it impractical for the child to attend school regularly. The commissioner therefore may properly consider a host of factors affecting the practicality of traveling the distance to and from school.”
Although this points in the direction of approval, RIDE will address the issue more clearly once school districts submit their reopening plans by July 17, according to Janhunen.
“Part of the challenge is that there’s so many different issues for governing bodies at state, local and school level,” Janhunen said. “It’s completely fair for municipalities to be wondering why at this point we can’t offer a single-size solution.”
The committee was uncertain whether they had enough buses to transport every student in the district while still maintaining social distancing guidelines. The guidelines include students remaining in stable groups, distancing students as much as possible, assigned seats, only one student in a seat unless they are siblings and screening before entering the bus. Some students, such as those with special needs or IEPs, will continue to receive transportation.
“We cannot support students in a healthy, safe manner without 50 more buses and complementary drivers,” School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus told the Warwick Beacon. “The bus company has a very difficult time maintaining drivers and getting new ones. Right now they can’t even take the road test because it is closed due to COVID-19”
Bachus and Testa both said they were discussing solutions that could include using the $4 million for at least some students.
All school districts are required to submit their fall reopening plans by July 17, which Bachus said during June’s special meeting was not enough time to come up with a solution. Regarding alternatives, School Committee Member David Testa said that the committee considered staggering school and bus times or having more students to walk to school. However, he said none of the solutions have been ideal.
“Even if you stagger times, there’s a whole ripple effect that happens after that. Other issues that pop up are equity issues. We can’t decide who can ride and who can’t.”
Testa also said that this is an issue that every district in the state is wrestling with, albeit with different degrees depending on size and budgets. He admitted that some parents may be unhappy with some of the proposed ideas, but Testa said that COVID-19 made it impossible to craft a perfect solution.
“It will definitely be a burden on parents,” Testa said. “I don’t think anybody understands that we understand that. But that's the reality of what the situation is. “
Other school committee members were wary regarding the cut. School Committee Members Judith Cobden and Nathaniel Cornell voted against the cut, while Bachus, Testa and Kyle Adams supported it.
Cobden said that she felt the decision to cut $6 million was premature, particularly because she, and everyone else, has no idea what the pandemic would look like in a few months.
“We don’t know what we are going to be getting for CARES money, nor does the city, nor does the state, so I don’t think it was fiscally responsible,” Cobden said. “I don’t know where the money’s going to come from now.”