Those yellow school buses, big and small, may look pretty much the same, but the 530 miles of roads they travel vary across the roughly 253 square miles served by the Mohawk Trail Regional School district — the largest, geographically, of any regional school district in Massachusetts.
As their odometers click forward, logging the miles of paved, gravel and dirt roads over hill and dale, Mohawk — like regional school districts around the county and the state — is losing millions of dollars.
Since the 2007-2008 school year, Mohawk lost $2.34 million in promised state transportation reimbursements, adding to the financial burdens of running a district across nine sparsely populated and relatively poor towns, whose geographic footprint is larger than that of the state’s 10 most populous cities combined.
To encourage rural towns to form more efficient regional school districts in the 1960s, the state promised to cover busing costs. But that promise has been rarely met. The law providing for reimbursement made the payouts “subject to appropriation” by the Legislature. Since 1978, school districts have received a full reimbursement for just four years, the first being in 1984. But generally, reimbursements have averaged about 73 percent.
In 2004, the reimbursement rate dipped below 50 percent.
The state budget for next school year is expected to set reimbursements at 72 or 73 percent, about the same as the current year.
“I think if we average it over the whole time frame,” said Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, “it creates an incredible stress on the school budget, with deficits of over $100,000 in the years since school year 2013-14 that need to be made up by cutting other parts of the budget.”
Against a backdrop of its being the state’s most sparsely populated school district — with fewer than two students per mile, compared to 4.3 students in the four-town Pioneer district — Mohawk is in a five-year transportation contract due to expire two years from now.
A long-range planning report noted in January 2015 that Mohawk’s $1,183,021 transportation budget represents more than 6 percent of the overall budget.
Yet Mohawk is hardly alone.
Last year, when the reimbursement was 73 percent, Frontier Regional School lost $73,258 in transportation costs, Pioneer Valley Regional School lost $221,246, Mahar Regional School lost $195,815 and Franklin County Technical School lost $216,984, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.
Franklin County Tech, the largest regional technical school district in the state, has had a total transportation shortfall of $1.6 million over the past seven years
“It’s a big hit,” said School Committee Vice-Chairman Angus ‘Terry’ Dun of Shelburne. “It’s always been an issue, one with which we’re powerless to deal with. It would be nice if they ever came close to funding it. It’s one of those things in the budget, but we never have any control over it.”