A unique law that created Regional School Unit 1 allows students to attend any school in the district. However, beginning in September, parents will be responsible for transporting their kids to school if they exercise that choice.

The RSU 1 board of directors voted Monday to eliminate school choice transportation, although an amended version of the final motion acknowledges that the decision is contingent upon receiving details about how the change will be implemented.

The decision is designed, in part, to address the logistics of the bus routes that transport students in Arrowsic, Bath, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich — the five communities that make up RSU 1.

Eliminating bus service for the 142 students who elect to attend a school outside their own community — half of whom use school transportation — would save an estimated $28,000, according to Superintendent Patrick Manuel.

In addition, Manuel said the district received a waiver from the state that allows RSU 1 not to provide door-todoor transportation for its pre-kindergarten program, for an additional savings of $15,000 to $18,000.

The cut to choice transportation could force some students to change schools, administrators acknowledged, but RSU 1 board chairman Tim Harkins warned that far more difficult budget decisions lie ahead as the district faces cutting between $750,000 and $1 million.

Unlike other school districts formed as a result of a 2008 school consolidation law, unique legislation that in 2007 created Regional School Unit 1 allows students living in one of the five towns in the district to attend any school in the five-community collaborative.

Since that time, RSU 1 has provided transportation to those students at no cost.

But in anticipation of this year’s budget situation, a September memo from Suzanne Steen of Bath Bus Service stated that as more families opted to exercise the school choice option, the cost of providing transportation to those students increased from $15,312 in the 2008-09 school year to $24,652 in the 2009-10 school year.

The cost dropped in 2010- 11 to $ 15,559 because Woolwich Central School relocated to Bath’s Huse School while Woolwich’s new school is under construction, but when Woolwich students attend a new school in that town in the fall, Steen wrote, the cost would increase — likely to $28,500, Manuel said Monday.

That tops this year’s estimate — projected from current figures — of $22,000.

Harkins said Monday that when the new Woolwich school opens in September, there will be much more interest from parents in sending their children to the new school.

If school choice transportation were eliminated, several bus runs could be eliminated, according to Steen. The change also would allow schools to align their start and end times and allow all RSU 1 schools to provide the same number of instruction minutes per day.

Some of the 20 parents who attended Monday’s meeting at Phippsburg Elementary School voiced concerns that some students — perhaps “the most vulnerable” — would be unable to continue attending their current school if school choice transportation were eliminated, and urged the board to find alternatives for households with special circumstances.

“I’ll be fine — I have a network — and of the 150 or so kids (exercising school choice), probably most have a network,” said Bath resident Lou Ensell, whose son attends West Bath Elementary. “Is there a way to exempt 25 or 30 people who really just don’t have a car and just can’t do it, but whose kids are doing really well in their school of choice?”

Ensell asked if the board could “just shave a little bit off of everything” instead of “gouging” one budget item.

West Bath Elementary School Principal Emily Thompson said a school advisory group determined that parents of about 12 students “did not know what they would do and did not know how they would get to school” should the measure pass.

“At what point is school choice not an option if you don’t have a way to get to school?” Thompson asked. “Are we still meeting the guidelines of school choice?”

Harkins said he would support paying for school choice transportation if the district could afford to do so, but urged the board to “keep in mind that we’re going to be cutting $750,000 to $1 million in this budget. We’re going to have to find it somewhere and we want to stay away from the core areas as much as possible … if we’re struggling with a potential $ 30,000 to $50,000 cut, just get ready — Hang on, because we’re talking about $1 million in cuts. We’re talking about impacting the classroom. It’s not going to be things on the periphery … we will inevitably be eliminating staff and programming.”

Board member Chet Garrison, who represents District 4, said he was uncomfortable making a decision without answers to a number of outstanding questions.

Board members subsequently approved an amended motion to eliminate the service, pending answers to those questions. Among them is whether the district must provide transportation for students from Arrowsic — which has no elementary school of its own — to any school in the district; and whether it will provide transportation for middle school students from towns that don’t have their own middle school to both Bath Middle School and the new Woolwich Central School.

Other questions raised by parents on Monday include whether transportation from a “drop-off point” in each town can be arranged, although administrators cautioned that there might be liability issues.

The board approved the amended motion 7-1, with District 6 representative Alan Walton opposed.

Of Monday’s decision, Harkins said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is representative of how much we’re going to be relying on the community to step up and fill some of these gaps we just can’t afford to fund.”

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