By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The mayor and school superintendent have reached a compromise on the School Department’s $500,000 proposal to eliminate a longstanding glitch in school bus routes which causes hundreds of students to be dismissed early every day.
Superintendent James Scully said the district has been dismissing students 10 to 20 minutes early on a daily basis at several Haverhill schools — including local Catholic schools to which the city provides transportation — to catch school buses home.
The problem, which has been going on for at least a decade, is primarily the result of the city’s large geographical size, the superintendent said. He has estimated it affects as many as 7 to 9 percent of the district’s 7,000 students.
The school district’s preliminary $90.6 million budget, which was tentatively approved by the School Committee last month, includes $509,000 to redo bus routes and fix the problem.
However, Mayor James Fiorentini said he would not support the overall school budget unless the transportation number was reduced. He also said he wanted the district to find a way to put some money in reserve for emergencies or unexpected expenses.
Yesterday, the mayor said both objectives have been accomplished. Fiorentini and Scully have agreed to reduce the proposed transportation increase from $500,000 to $300,000 and put $200,000 into reserve. The mayor said the reserve is especially critical due to the unpredictability of special education costs.
“Cities that have gotten into budget trouble in recent years, it’s been because of special education students who moved in during the school year and they had no reserves to pay for them,” the mayor said.
In fact, Scully said the district overspent its special education budget by $750,000 this year.
He said the district has had to take money from other accounts to try to cover the shortfall and that he is hopeful the deficit can be plugged in the next month, which is the end of the fiscal year.
The school district will now try to solve the busing problem with the lower amount, Scully said.
“We won’t be able to do everything we wanted, but we’ll do what we can,” he said, referring to expanding bus routes.
A public hearing on the school spending proposal will be Thursday at 6 p.m. in City Hall. The School Committee is expected to take its final votes on the spending plan that night, after hearing from the public and making any last-minute changes.
Overall, the school budget is up about $4 million, or 5 percent compared to this year, in both the mayor’s and School Committee’s budget proposal. The city’s contribution to the school budget, which includes state aid, is up almost 8 percent, the mayor said.
Fiorentini and Scully credited state Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with delivering $3 million in increased state aid for the schools.
“If not for Dempsey shepherding education money to cities like Haverhill, we’d be in big trouble,” Scully said. “Our costs on everything from special education to gas and utilities have really been rising.”