By Lisa Loomis

There are roughly 2,000 students in the Washington West Supervisory Union School district, only one half of whom rides the publicly funded bus system.

At Harwood, there are 820 students and 19 buses that specifically transport Harwood students. Of those 820 students, approximately 550 ride the bus, according to principal Duane Pierson.

"This is a big dilemma for rural schools," Pierson said.

"It's expensive and the district is huge. When the state just repaved the roads, they didn't make a bike path to the school which was a big disappointment for me," he added.

Harwood's share of the $776,857 cost of the district transportation system is $269,505 according to Washington West business manager John Pike.

At neighboring Moretown Elementary School, there are 164 students and an estimated 140 ride the bus. Pike said Moretown's share of the total transportation cost for this year is $102,445.

Waitsfield has 164 students including the school's preschoolers (preschoolers are counted in the enrollment figures for all local elementary schools) and about 50 students ride the school bus at a cost of $35,651.

Fayston Elementary School principal Chris Dodge reports that 50 to 60 of Fayston's 115 students ride the bus. That town's share of the bussing costs is $70,255.

The town of Warren pays for its own transportation for elementary school students and subcontracts with Washington West for its high school students.  Elementary school principal Andreas Lehner said Warren has 138 students (including 26 preschool students). He said one bus route, the west side, averages 25 to 30 morning riders and 30 to 35 afternoon riders. The other bus route averages 16 to 22 students in the morning and 20 to 25 in the afternoon.

"These figures include Harwood students who meet the Harwood bus at a designated pickup point in the morning or are delivered there in the afternoon," Lehner said.

"Concerns about global warming are resulting in some recent increased ridership," he added.

Warren spent $88,736 for student transportation (including field trips and its $9320 payment to Washington West for transporting high school students). Lehner noted that Warren had huge bus repair bills in 2006 and also replaced both buses.

Ray Staskus, local contract manager for First Student, said the district contracts for a total of 55 bus runs per day, including regular morning and afternoon runs, plus late buses. First Student owns the buses which are all full size. He said that about 1000 students ride the buses to and from Harwood, Crossett Brook, Thatcher Brook and the Waitsfield, Fayston and Moretown elementary schools. There are 2000 students in the district, but only 1862 if Warren's elementary students (who ride Warren's buses - or who could ride Warren's buses) are excluded.

Taxpayers in the Washington West School District pay $776,857 for student transportation. That figure is broken down by town and school based on the number of miles of bus routes each town/school requires.

The figure is further offset by the fact that the district rents space at Harwood Union to First Student, provider of the service, and also pays in advance to receive a three percent discount.

The buses are all diesel buses, all get about 6.5 miles to the gallon and all must idle for a requisite amount of time on cold mornings. The buses do use a low sulfur diesel fuel which reduces the amount of particulate emissions, but those emissions still accumulate, ranging from 5.6 to 14 pounds per year per bus of particulate 'soot' and 322 to 417 pounds per year per bus of 'smog' emissions (EPA website). Specific information about the Navastar diesel engines in the buses was not available, nor could a company spokesperson be found to comment on whether the First Student buses have been retrofitted with diesel oxidation catalysts which use a chemical process to break down pollutants in the exhaust stream into less harmful components.

"Each local school board has asked that question, what can we do to increase ridership or reduce costs? We have two more years on our contract with First Student," Pike said.

He said that Vermont school districts are not statutorily obligated to provide transportation, but said most do. He echoed Pierson's comment about the rural nature of The Valley and the difficulty in transporting students from far flung points of each town.

"Because places are so spread out, there are possibilities that kids are on the bus for substantial periods of time before they get to school," he said.