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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 16, 2010

Vote for a safe future

Illustration by Forest Byrd.

“The wheels on the bus go round and round,” sing the kindergarten kids.

The song has been a staple as, over the last half-century, school districts have centralized on the chassis of the yellow behemoths.

The one-room schoolhouse to which young scholars once walked is a thing of the past.

Something else is coming ’round again, too — a vote to buy new school buses for Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

The rural district, spread across the Helderbergs, covers parts of seven towns and 126 square miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover. The district says that last year alone, its buses traveled 670,000 miles.

Although Hilltown residents, like the terrain they inhabit, are known for their ruggedness and for making do in tough times, the district’s fleet of buses must conform to rigid safety standards set by the state.

Salt used to make winter roads passable takes its toll, corroding bus parts.  Rough roads also add to the wear and tear. Repairs to meet state standards can be costly. Since June, the district says by way of example, mechanics have had to weld corroded support beams on the undercarriages of older buses 10 times.

The district has had an ongoing replacement program, regularly retiring the oldest buses in its fleet, replacing them with new ones. This is wise financial planning.

Since state aid pays for 70 percent of the cost, BKW voters, year in and year out, have been supportive of the bus propositions. Last year, for example, the proposition to buy three 66-pasenger buses and two Suburbans for $368,000 passed with 72 percent of the vote.

This year was an exception. On May 18, voters turned down the bus proposition along with the budget; 513 voted for the proposition and 556 voted against it.

We don’t blame voters for being upset. Hundreds of residents — many of them angry — had filled the high school auditorium earlier in the spring as the threat of massive firings hung in the balance. The governor had proposed in January cutting $1.3 billion in school aid, which meant that BKW — a rural district with a budget of not quite $20 million that depends on state aid for about half of its expenses — would lose over a million dollars in aid.

Many residents felt left out of the loop, ill informed on what cuts were being made at BKW and why. The budget was soundly defeated in May. It was voted down both by residents who felt the tax hike was unaffordable and by residents who thought the staff and program cuts were too deep.

We commend the district for its recent move to revamp its budget advisory committee. The committee members’ top priorities this year will be acting as public representatives at budget meetings with the school board, communicating with the greater district on the progression of the budget process, and clarifying for the public any information related to budgeting.

Such improved communication is critical for passing a school budget.

It’s also critical for passing a bus proposition. We believe the May 18 defeat of the bus proposition was caused by anger and frustration over the school district budget. With the calm that has followed the storm, with new leadership at the district’s helm, and with a school board willing to make necessary changes, we appeal to the abundant common sense of Hilltowners as they prepare to cast their ballot on the Sept. 21 bus proposition.

Last month, the BKW School Board heeded the public’s concern when it set the district’s tax rate. When the board passed a $19.6 million contingency budget in May, just three days after the defeat at the polls, the plan was to raise the tax levy by 6.5 percent. Last month, the board took extra money from its fund balance, or rainy day account, so that the tax-levy increase came to 4.97 percent instead.

The Sept. 21 bus proposition makes sound financial sense. The revised proposal is to purchase four school buses — two 65-passenger buses and two 28-passenger buses — for $305,000. The purchase won’t affect the tax levy. The proposed bond amount of $200,000 would be covered by state aid and the remaining $105,000 would come from the district’s transportation reserve fund. One wheelchair bus has been eliminated from the original proposal.

The required repairs for aging buses could well end up costing as much or more than the local share paid by taxpayers for new buses. Recently, the district says, $45,000 was spent on bodywork repairs for a dozen buses; five of those buses would have been replaced if the proposition had passed in May.

Also, as the district emphasized throughout the budget process this spring, the new federal emissions standards mean that the district has to pay $7,000 to $10,000 more for each bus if the proposition isn’t passed. It won’t be getting those buses this school year if the proposition goes down again, but it will have to at some point in the future.

The vote will be held at the high school in Berne next Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“I think everyone was focused on the budget and the increase in the tax levy,” Maureen Sikule, the BKW School Board president, told us when the board decided to hold a re-vote. “So, I think there was a feeling on the board that we didn’t communicate well with the public on the bus proposition, as far as there not being an effect on the tax levy.”

The channels of communication now are wide open. BKW voters have a second chance to show their common sense.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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