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In historic vote, East Aurora adds everyday busing for schools

East Aurora School District 131 made history Monday night, approving regular, everyday busing for students.

To applause from the audience, school board members for the first time approved buses for all students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school. The move is expected to provide transportation for more than 3,000 additional students.

The board approved spending millions over three years on the bus plan – some of the details of which are still under consideration – and two new transportation-related staff positions. But district officials are also expecting the additional transportation to bring in new money.

School board President Annette Johnson said she anticipates the additional buses will help raise attendance, test scores and the graduation rate.

"This solves an age-old problem in the East Aurora School District," she said.

The district already buses special education students, some preschool and kindergarten students and district students who attend the third- through eighth-grade John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University.

But for decades, both the district and voters have rejected widespread busing, often citing the cost. Recently, callers to a Beacon-News comment line have voiced concerns that a busing expansion will lead to higher property taxes or will cause traffic problems.

Mark McDonald, one of the district’s two interim superintendents, said the district has "made a commitment" to find a way to pay for transportation, and said the district was not looking to raise taxes or go out for a referendum. Johnson said the board would "absolutely not" rely on a tax hike to pay for expanded transportation.

The board approved paying between $3.9 million and $5.4 million to First Student for busing over three years, though the final numbers will depend on details that have not yet been finalized. They also approved hiring two transportation staff members – an assistant director and a specialist – whose combined annual salary and benefits are expected to be around $167,400.

But the district expects some of those costs to be offset by a state transportation reimbursement and increased attendance, which will affect the amount of aid the state pays to the district. Depending on the final cost of busing and on the amount attendance – and therefore state aid – ultimately goes up, district projections show East Aurora could, all told, be out as much as $466,632 next school year or come out ahead as much as $128,633 that year.

The projections don’t include bus monitors, who can handle discipline issues, and assume the state reimburses the district for the full amount it is eligible to receive. This year, the state only reimbursed districts for 71 percent of what they were eligible to receive for transportation.

In most cases, the state will provide some reimbursement for students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school – the distance at which East Aurora is moving to provide busing.

Whether buses will come in closer to $3.9 million or to $5.4 million will depend in part on how many bus monitors the district determines are needed. It will also depend on whether the district is able to change some school start times during the coming school year.

If the district is able to stagger class bell times the same buses could make multiple runs and the district would pay for fewer buses. School start and end times are laid out in the teachers’ and staff contract and changes must be approved by the union. Another year remains on the current contract.

Union President Gerry Mestek said a detailed proposal has not been brought to the union.

Johnson said the expanded busing will put East Aurora "on the same playing field" as other districts. Board member Kim Hatchett thanked administrators.

"My heart goes out to a parent who doesn’t have a way to get the kids to school," she said. "So this is great work, a phenomenal job to be able to put it together and have it ready for next school year."

Board members have said they are working to have the new buses in place for the 2017-18 school year, but their vote did not include a timeline.

sfreishtat@tribpub.com

Twitter @srfreish