Saugus Public Schools has a transportation waiting list of 158 students because of a school bus shortage
The mother of a five-year-old student broke down in tears at last week’s (Sept. 15) School Committee meeting as she pleaded with committee members to help resolve her dilemma: Her son can’t ride the school bus that goes by her house. “My son has to walk 40 minutes to school and 40 minutes to the house,” the Pond Avenue woman told the committee.
She said her son has to walk about 1.9 miles to the Veterans Early Learning Center.
Meanwhile, a school bus stops next door to her house, but her son can’t ride it because Saugus Public Schools has a shortage of school buses. The school district is only required to provide transportation to students in kindergarten through grade six who live more than two miles from a school. Making matters worse, she noted, her son has asthma.
“I feel for you and the other parents,” School Committee Chair Vincent Serino told the woman.
“Our hands are a little bit tied with the state mandates. We’re going to work on this. I promise you,” he said.
The woman’s five-year-old child is just one of 158 students who are on a waiting list to ride the school bus, according to Saugus Public Schools Superintendent Erin McMahon. That list includes 15 at the Veterans Early Learning Center, 55 at the Belmonte STEAM Academy and 88 at the Saugus Middle High School Complex.
Five school buses aren’t enough
The superintendent told the School Committee that school transportation planning for the district has been in the works since last March and that there are currently five school buses – one more than last year – based on the planning. But within the first week of classes, school officials noticed a sharp increase in the number of “mandatory riders,” those students in kindergarten through grade six who live more than two miles away from the school they attend. McMahon said the district has requested another bus but doesn’t expect to get one until the spring. The superintendent said her office has asked School Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould to convene a Safety and Transportation Subcommittee meeting to “brainstorm” potential options to ease the burden for parents who want their children to ride the school bus, but can’t because of limited seats.
Currently, school officials are doing a headcount on the number of “mandatory riders” who are not riding the school bus in order to accommodate some of the students on the waiting list.
School Committee Vice Chair John Hatch asked the superintendent how many buses the school district would need “in the ideal world.” McMahon answered, “At least three to four more buses on top of the buses we now have. … Eight to 11 buses [total], she said.
Gould suggested that the district consider the local MBTA bus as an option. The superintendent said the subcommittee should consider that.
During the meeting’s public participation session, a second parent – Ben Westerfield, of Bristow Street – shared the frustrations of not getting a seat on the school bus for his 12-year-old son, who exhibits epileptic symptoms. Westerfield said his son lives more than two miles from the Saugus Middle High School, but he doesn’t qualify as a “mandatory rider” because he’s a seventh grader. “Forty minutes of walking just to go to school. How long can that go on?” Westerfield asked.
“We’re going to have a lot more problems when winter comes,” he said.
School Committee Chair Serino apologized to the parents for their dilemma. “You have a problem. Unfortunately, we don’t have a solution,” Serino said.
“We’re trying to get more buses,” he said.
“Trust me. We’re trying. If we could find a bus tomorrow, we’d find the money. It’s not like the old days when we have 50 bus companies,” he said.
Subcommittee will explore options
School Committee Member Gould suggested that parents who are looking for immediate solutions go onto Facebook and other social media sites and network with Saugus residents to see if there are parents who are willing to share rides.
“We’re convening a special committee [the subcommittee] to start to look at this problem immediately,” Hatch said.
“The important takeaway – we are going to take a look at the situation immediately,” he said.
School Committee Member Ryan Fisher said he agrees that networking with other parents can provide short-term solutions to the problem. He noted, “There’s a lot of people trying to help til we get more busing.”
The superintendent cited three key reasons why school officials are committed to finding quick solutions to the bus shortage problem: to make sure students get to school on time, to ease the burden for parents and to reduce the traffic congestion in town by having more students ride the bus.
Saugus’s dilemma is aggravated by the fact that Massachusetts and other states throughout the country are having trouble finding school bus drivers as the country tries to rebound from COVID-19.