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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Although Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds said she has not finalized a plan to charge students to ride school buses, she maintained Wednesday that the department has the authority to do so.
At a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on St. Thomas to discuss ways to avoid charging $5 a week for elementary students to ride school buses and $10 for secondary school students, Simmonds said a 1964 law establishing free busing has been modified over the years.
While Simmonds didn’t give details in a press release about the revisions, she said two measures passed by previous Legislatures showed a clear intent to authorize the department to establish and collect reasonable fees for school bus transportation.
"At the Department of Education we have been guided by the principles that the most recent interpretation of legislative intent is controlling, especially in the face of drastic changes in our financial circumstances," Simmonds said.
Education Committee Chairman Norman Jn Baptiste said the meeting was "fruitful."
"The mere fact that the commissioner has said that it hasn’t been finalized shows this isn’t set in concrete," Baptiste said.
Simmonds said Education spends $5.4 million a year to provide transportation services for public and private school students, including boat transportation for students on St. John. The $5.4 million includes specialized service for special education students, she said.
"The fees to be charged will not cover the total cost of pupil transportation but will only serve to subsidize it by 50 percent," Simmonds said, adding that the Turnbull administration plans to issue a request for proposals within a month aimed at revamping Vitran and student transport.
Baptiste noted the cost of providing transportation to students and suggested a lower figure, such as 50 cents per ride. He also said that many of his colleagues want to do away with giving lump-sum budgets to departments in order to better manage funds.
"Yes, we can charge a fee," Baptiste said. "And it has to be a nominal fee and at the last resort."
To protest the fee proposal, parents of students are expected to march Thursday on the newly rededicated Government House in Christiansted. Jonathon James, president of the Parent Teachers Association at Pearl B. Larsen Elementary on St. Croix, said the march is to "let people in authority know we’re not going to pay the bus fee. We can’t afford it."
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen has said that if Simmonds doesn’t rescind the fee proposal, she will file a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the plan.

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