POWNAL >> Typically, the last day of school is a time for celebration, but the mood was somber in Pownal on Friday, the final day Pownal's four bus drivers will be on the job.
Due to a ruling from the Agency of Education, Williamstown's Dufour Tours will replace Pownal's own buses in providing transportation to and from school, starting next year. Dufour is the company that is used by the rest of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.
For many years, Pownal has operated its own school buses, until Act 153 of 2010 changed state statute to require that supervisory unions provide all transportation to their member districts, unless the member district could prove that their operating their own buses was more efficient and more cost-effective. Pownal was informed by Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe in December of last year that the school district was out of compliance with the law. Under the advisement of SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen, the Pownal board sought a two-year waiver to allow Pownal to continue to operate its buses while the matter was studied, but Holcombe denied that waiver request last September, saying that if Pownal joined the rest of the SVSU in its contract with Dufour, it would save taxpayers over $100,000 in FY17 alone.
Holcombe offered a one-year waiver that would allow Pownal's buses to remain in operation through this June, but only under the condition that Pownal agreed to join the SU contract for the following school year. Had Pownal remained out of compliance, or it goes out of compliance again in the future, the town would have been faced with penalties on the education tax rate, she said.
Lisa Strohmaier, who has driven for Pownal for nine years, said that the drivers and children form a special bond. "We are some of the first adults these children see," she said, "You have a lifelong history with them. We pick them up every day. If there's an emergency, we're there." As she was speaking, as if to prove her point, a child ran up to her and gave her a hug, wishing her a good summer.
The district also employs Brent Kipp, Bruce Burrington, and Joel Burrington. The Burringtons have each driven buses for the district for over 20 years. Kipp and Strohmaier are currently otherwise employed by the district, as the physical education teacher and as a paraeducator, respectively.
"It's been a wonderful experience at Pownal for a number of years, and it is truly disappointing to lose our buses," said principal Todd Phillips. He said the school will continue to use the buses on a more limited basis, for school trips and activities. This will allow them to have full-day trips, while the rest of the SU will have to be back in time for the buses to pick up students from the high school, he said.
The school board has said repeatedly that they will continue to fight for their buses. They have suggested bidding against Dufour when their contract expires at the end of next year. School board member Todd Steinhoff was present for the drivers' last day of service. "I think it's disappointing," he said, "that we were force to go elsewhere for our buses, when the entire community supported us."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.