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NY puts brakes on school bus home deliveries

Meal delivery programs move to pick-up as state reveals it will not reimburse no-passenger bus trips

Saranac Lake Central School District bus drivers Gar Munn, left, and Bill Salls load a cooler of food for students into a van in March. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

The Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake school districts ended their meal delivery bus programs this month, in part because of a surprising — and, for many, disappointing — lack of state aid.

Free meals for students are still provided, but they no longer will be home-delivered. Now they need to be picked up at specific locations.

Tupper Lake moved to the pick-up system at the beginning of this week when it switched to remote at-home learning. Saranac Lake’s last delivery was Wednesday and included food to last into the holiday season and a turkey dinner.

The main reason deliveries are stopping is because the state recently revealed it will not provide transportation aid for buses being driven without students on them, even if they are providing essential food, homework packets and Wi-Fi connection help for students at home.

Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox said her district’s buses have become somewhat like UPS trucks since the pandemic began, delivering packages to students working from home during times of COVID-19 lockdown.

Why the aid stopped

When school buildings shut down in the spring due to the virus, administrators at local districts decided to keep providing food and school materials right to students’ doorsteps. Buses were still out on the roads, driving around.

“We always questioned since March whether or not that was going to be reimbursed,” Tupper Lake Central School District Business Administrator Dan Bower said. “They (state officials) finally got around to answering that question, and unfortunately the answer was no.”

The local school districts learned earlier this month that through a technicality in education law, the state is not authorized to financially assist them with home deliveries. This revelation means further financial hardships for districts that have spent thousands on maintaining at-home food and supply deliveries with the hope that they would be reimbursed.

“There was no discussion of it (by the state),” Fox said. “The money comes the following year, so unbeknownst to us until very recently, we will see a dramatic reduction in our transportation aid.”

She said buses in Saranac Lake were running almost every day and that the need has increased as the pandemic has worn on. More students who got single-day food deliveries have moved to requesting food for five days.

The damage

Saranac Lake district Business Executive Cindy Moody said in a Wednesday school board meeting that the district spent $244,490 on transportation in the spring lockdown period. She said if no aid is provided, which she called “a worst case scenario,” this could result in a potential loss of $70,658.

Bower said, calculating just mileage and paying drivers from mid-March to August, the Tupper Lake district spent $23,000. He said without state aid, this could result in a potential $15,000 loss. He said the Tupper Lake dollar amount is lower than Saranac Lake’s because it is a smaller district, and his calculations did not include things like maintenance and insurance.

Moody was asked at the board meeting how much was spent in this period compared to other years. She did not know at the moment but said the district likely used less fuel because the buses were in full operation on fewer days — but she also said they did a lot of deliveries.

“I wouldn’t think it was any worse than any other year,” Moody said. “I would think it would play out pretty even.”

Bower said Tupper Lake also stopped because of logistics reasons, but that the state not aiding these deliveries played a part in the decision, too.

Fox said the state aid is the sole reason for their deliveries ending.

“We feel we have to be financially good stewards, too,” Fox said. “I just don’t feel I can continue to dig the financial hole.”

Making it work

Both districts said the primary concern is keeping kids fed and supplied with the necessities for their education, and they are doing whatever it takes to make it work.

Fox said Saranac Lake Middle School Dean of Students Don Carlisto is out on the road every day making deliveries and that staff in the technology department are driving things out themselves.

Bower said the Tupper Lake district has waivers for people who cannot make it to a pick-up location, allowing other people to pick up meals for them. He said his district will continue homework deliveries on Wednesdays, even without state aid.

“It is required for instruction,” Bower said.

Fox said her district will need assistance from families and that it is willing to do drop-offs and pick-ups.

She said Saranac Lake’s Community School department is connecting with families who do not have vehicles and urges people who worry about being able to make it to pick-up spots to call it and work something out.

“Those families that don’t have the means to be able to be part of the pick-up and drop-off, we will certainly make things work for them,” Fox said.

Potential relief

Moody said the state Board of Regents is proposing the state Legislature amend the education law in its 2021-22 budget to allow reimbursement for costs accrued between March 18 and May 1, 2020, and possibly in future coronavirus-related closures if transportation is needed to maintain at home education.

She said several other state organizations are rallying for this, too.

Bower said he remains optimistic the state will provide some relief, but Fox is not so sure.

“Now we’re relying on a legislature that’s coming into a fiscal crisis,” Fox said, pointing out that the state is cash-strapped due to the virus and most state agencies will be requesting additional aid.

Saranac Lake’s district is extra-sensitive to this as it is the largest, geographically, in the state.

Lake Placid

Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Roger Catania said since Lake Placid schools are currently maintaining its in-person instruction, there is not a need for bus deliveries.

However, he said that if the district is forced to move to at-home instruction due to an increase in cases, its plan, for now, is to return to a delivery system.

“While we’re very well aware of the lack of aid and we’re not happy about it, we’ve still got it in our plan,” Catania said. “While very labor intensive and costly, it provides our students with essential service.”

This may all change, though, he said.

He said the district provides around two meals a day for some students and that those are meals they might not have otherwise, adding that these services also support their families.

“This decision to not provide aid … restricts what school districts can do in the face of financial pressures,” Catania said.

He said with possible 20% cuts in school aid looming over districts, not receiving this state transportation aid “adds salt to the wound.”

Catania said the more state and federal aid the districts can receive the better off the community will be.

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