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Malden cuts school buses in effort to save money

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Fern Remedi-Brown and her 11-year-old daughter, Maya, practiced taking public transportation to school after Malden eliminated bus service.
Fern Remedi-Brown and her 11-year-old daughter, Maya, practiced taking public transportation to school after Malden eliminated bus service.(Fern Remedi-Brown)

Yellow school buses, as much a staple of elementary school as backpacks, blackboards, and lunch boxes, will roll no more in Malden, after city officials made the unusual decision to eliminate bus service for some families.

City officials said the cancellation was a painful but necessary step to help the School Department, which was facing a $2.5 million budget gap, save $400,000.

The decision, which affects about 120 of Malden's 6,500 students, has sent parents scrambling to make other arrangements to get their children to school.

"It really feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us," said Fern Remedi-Brown, whose 11-year-old daughter, Maya, is about to start sixth grade at the Linden STEAM Academy, which is 2.6 miles from their home.

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She said she could drive Maya, but it would be time-consuming in rush-hour traffic. So she has been showing her daughter how to take an MBTA bus, though she worries about her walking past registered sex offenders, navigating snowstorms, and finding a seat.

"At best, it's an inconvenience," said Remedi-Brown. "And at most, it's a great hardship."

The decision, though rare, is not without precedent. In 2007, cash-strapped Randolph scrapped its bus service to save $500,000.

"You can do it in a city that is relatively small geographically," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It's never a popular decision, but it's sometimes a decision districts have to make."

Many suburban school districts, meanwhile, charge parents a fee, up to nearly $600 a year, to subsidize bus service.

In Malden, parents said they are upset not only that bus service was eliminated but that the School Department did not notify them as soon as the City Council approved the cut, on June 23.

School officials waited until July 26 to send a letter to parents, leaving them just over a month to adjust to the change before the start of the new school year, on Tuesday.

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"It's not about whining to get the bus back," said Jen Hendrey, whose daughter is also starting sixth grade at Linden Academy. "It's about the communication ball having been dropped after the decision was made, which means parents had no chance to respond to this."

She said she was stunned that school officials did not reach out to parents to help them adjust to the cancellation, which she said will be particularly difficult for poor and immigrant families.

About 19 percent of Malden's students lack fluency in English, and 40 percent are classified by the state as "economically disadvantaged," a formula based on families receiving food stamps, Medicaid, or other welfare benefits.

"It's like they forgot their obligation to the children, ethically and legally, doesn't end at solving the deficit," Hendrey said. "How did they not say, 'How do we make school truly accessible for the kids and the families that are going to have a very difficult disruption? We better get on this.' "

Charles A. Grandson IV, the interim superintendent of schools, said parents were right to be angry about the late notification, which he said should have been issued as soon as the budget was approved in June.

"I really agree and empathize with parents because I'm a parent and, if I received this short notice, I would be scrambling, too," he said.

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He said he met with Hendrey and other parents last week to help them plan other means of transportation, such as car pools.

Grandson said the district will continue to provide transportation to homeless children and special education and disabled students, as required by federal law.

State law also entitles students to bus service if they live more than 2 miles from school, or more than a mile from the nearest school bus stop.

Most students in Malden attend schools within that 2-mile zone, so they walk or are driven by their parents.

The 120 students affected by the cut had been ferried on school buses because they attend more than 2 miles from home. But Grandson said the district was not violating the law by eliminating their bus service because the students could attend walkable schools, yet chose to enroll in schools more than 2 miles away.

Mayor Gary Christenson blamed the late notification on a change in administration, with Grandson taking over from a previous superintendent on July 4. Still, he agreed it was a problem that letters were not sent as soon as the cut was approved in June.

He said saving $400,000 on bus service will spare the district from having to lay off six to eight teachers. Last year, he said, the district had to cut school librarians to close a budget shortfall.

"It's definitely not what we wanted to do," Christenson said. "But when you're trying to keep core services intact — meaning the teachers and the paraprofessionals — unfortunately, this is what happens sometimes."

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Michael Levenson
can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.