By Patrick Anderson
The free ride could soon be over for many Gloucester schoolchildren.
A $250 annual bus fee for elementary school and middle school students has been proposed by the public school system as it cuts costs to make up for reduced state aid and sagging city revenues.
The fee would be charged any kindergartner through eighth-grader who lives less than two miles from their school and wants to ride the bus. Those in sixth grade or lower who travel longer distances are entitled to a free ride by state law.
The change would bump up the current $100 price of a bus pass for seventh- and eighth-graders. High schoolers who use CATA buses would not be affected by the change.
Even within the two-mile mandated area, according to the proposal, space on city school buses would be reserved for students in kindergarten through second grade who live more than one mile from school, and third- through fifth-graders who live between 11âÑ2 and two miles. Middle schoolers living less than two miles from school would be provided rides, with a fee, "if space permits."
The proposal as drafted also says:
Per-student cost of bus passes will be capped at $500 per family.
Students eligible for reduced lunch will pay $175 per rider, with a $350 family cap.
Students eligible for a free lunch will pay $100 per rider with a $200 family cap.
One-way passes will be available for $150, space permitting, for students who will either get rides one way, or who need transport to an after-school activity.
The fee proposal had been rumored for months, and was rolled out Wednesday night before the School Committee.
After a vetting in the Building and Finance subcommittee, the proposal is expected to come up for a vote by the School Committee this spring.
Gloucester School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said yesterday that he had not decided whether he would vote to back the plan and was particularly torn by the thought of hiking another fee that affects so many residents.
"This is just one of those fees that is really over the top, that I really need to think about," Verga said. "When you compound it with everything else we have done, it's hard. There used to be none of these fees."
Anticipating approval of new bus pass rules, the schools have penciled in $150,000 in new revenues to next year's working budget from the fees.
No estimates were available yesterday from the schools on whether there would be savings from having to use fewer buses, or whether an increase in traffic was expected from cars dropping off students who used to ride the bus.
If approved, the proposed bus fee would be the latest in a string of city and school services that used to be free — or paid through property taxes — now supported by fees.
Last year, the committee raised most athletic fees 116 percent for this school year, and just this month the city moved to a bag-based, pay-as-you-throw trash system to reduce its costs for what was once a free service.
In this transition to a user-fee system of public services, Gloucester is not alone.
In Manchester and Essex, the regional school district is introducing bus fees for the first time next school year.
The exact amount of the annual fee in Manchester and Essex has not been calculated yet, but the regional school committee has included $20,000 in new transportation revenue in its proposed fiscal 2010 budget.
The amount of the fee is expected to be determined this summer by calculating the number of paying riders and how much each will need to contribute to get to $20,000.
In Rockport, kindergarten through grade six students living within two miles of school pay $100 each year to ride the bus with students in grade seven and above all paying to ride. There is a $250 family cap.
The district does not have plans to change the fees for the next school year.
The decision to more than double fees comes as Gloucester public schools have had to cut $300,000 from this year's budget, and are bracing for as much as $1.7 million in cuts in next year's school budget to absorb increased costs and reduced state aid.
"If we didn't have this $1.7 million coming down," Verga said, "we wouldn't be talking about a bus fee."
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org