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Changes in formula aid, pay for school bus driver discussed at public hearing

Sat, May 18th 2024 07:00 am

By Alice Gerard

Senior Contributing Writer

Changes in the way the state handles foundation aid, as well as issues involving transportation, were highlighted at the school district’s public hearing on its budget, which was held Monday.

According to Robert Merkle, assistant superintendent for school business and finance, the highlights in the state’s funding of schools, as well as how it handles issues, such as transportation, include:

√ Total school aid was increased by $1.3 billion, which includes a $934.5 million increase in foundation aid.

√ The hold harmless provision, which means that school districts don’t receive a cut in foundation aid, was reinstated. Previously, schools that were assisted by the hold harmless provision received a 3% loan. “They did not do that (for the upcoming school year),” Merkle explained.

√ The state changed the CPI (consumer price index) formula. “Under the normal statutory formula, it would have been 4.1%. This year, however, they used a 2.8% formula instead. That decreased the foundation aid a bit,” Merkle said.

√ Expense-based aids, such as building aid, were funded at their current level.

√ “The Rockefeller Institute of Government has been tasked with reviewing the foundation aid formula going forward, so they will be doing that over the next year and will be revising the formula,” Merkle said.

√ NYSERDA will create a zero-emissions school bus resource center.

√ The State Department of Education is being directed to conduct a study on the consolidation of pre-K programs.

√ “The Smart School Review Board is eliminated,” Merkle said. He explained Betty A. Rosa, state education commissioner, in accordance with state regulations, will work with the Division of Budget to “review projects going forward. That’s important because the Smart Schools Review Board has been taking a considerable amount of time to review these applications, and, in the process, the price of everything is going up significantly. It’s costing significantly more money, which really means that you get less than what you would have at the time of application. So, we hope to see those applications being processed faster, as a result of this.”

After presenting an overview of the proposed 2024-25 Grand Island Central School District budget, members of the public were invited to express their concerns to the Board of Education. Two individuals spoke about their concerns about the school district’s ability to attract new school bus drivers.

Trina Gray, the parent of two high school students, said, “I think that community awareness is extremely large around our lack of bus drivers. I believe I understand our starting wage for drivers is approximately $19.50. Competitive wages in districts surrounding ours are somewhere around $24-$25 an hour. I think I also understand that we don’t offer full-time benefits for our drivers because they aren’t, in fact, full-time. Most of them are a few hours short. I also think I understand that there were occasions this year or maybe previous years where there weren’t enough drivers to provide transportation. In limited instances, parents were called to pick up their children.

“My question/comment/statement in regards to proposition two is that it’s for vehicles, which is great. I understand that they need to be replaced as they get older and mechanical issues happen. How serious can we be to potentially increase the wages of our drivers and benefits for our drivers to make it more competitive, so we don’t have to worry about getting our kids to these buildings that you’re all dedicated to, and we are as parents, as well.”

Grand Island School District Superintendent Dr. Brian Graham explained the $19.50 wage is paid to substitute drivers. After working for 20 consecutive days, a substitute driver’s pay is increased to $22.58 per hour.

“So, Dr. Merkle and Theresa Alizadeh started the transportation study,” Graham said. “An outside vendor had a kickoff meeting on Friday (May 10). So, it isn’t complete yet. And that’s a really important next step. A third-party vendor will come in, will look at all the data, and will look at all the information, and will then provide us with recommendations. We’re looking forward to that. We think we’ll have that in about a month. At that time, that will be presented to the board. Then, we can talk about those recommendations.”

Alexis Wrobel, the parent of five children, said the bus drivers that have driven her children “have been around since I’ve been in the school district, which is a fabulous thing. It means that they’re loyal. They’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the right reasons, to keep our kids safe. We have to show them they’re worth it. We have to pay them competitively. We have to give benefits. We have to get our community members involved to want these jobs. I can tell you that. I have bus drivers who knew me when I was little, who still ask about my brothers and my sisters, and my father, who passed away. They know everything about these kids. They’re not doing it for the money, but they deserve the money.”

When Gray asked how quickly the third-party vendor’s recommendations could be implemented, Graham said, “With board approval, that could be implemented immediately, based on the data.”

“After the board meeting’s done,” Wrobel said, “I’d like to talk to each one of you and see what can be done without paying someone else. A third-party vendor has to be paid. How much do we pay him?”

Merkle told her the “contract was not to exceed $17,000.”

Wrobel said, “$17,000 to pay someone else to tell us what we already know? That we could be investing in these people. They’re looking for the community to step up.”

Graham told Wrobel that, after the Board of Education meeting, he and Merkle “would be happy to meet with you.”

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