DRACUT -- School transportation costs are running a deficit of $240,000 more than was budgeted for in fiscal 2013-2014, Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone said.

It marks the second straight year that costs of operating the school district's transportation program have far outstripped the appropriated amount for that budget line-item at the start of the school year, even after factoring in the total amount of student-rider fees collected, Stone said.

"We know that the problem is out there," Stone said. "We have to tackle it before the end of the year. We are monitoring (the costs) every day."

As happened last spring, Stone said he will most likely seek the School Committee's approval to use School Choice funding to offset the deficit and achieve a balanced budget by the fiscal year's end on June 30.

"As we've spoken about before, it is likely that School Choice funds -- that we otherwise could put toward instruction and learning -- we're going to have to use to help offset the deficit," said Stone.

The superintendent said the transportation deficit comes as no surprise because the upfront appropriation for school transportation in this year's school budget was less than the known costs.

"There are costs for regular-education transportation, special-education transportation, and out-of-district special-education transportation, and the upfront appropriation was about $200,000 below what we needed," Stone said. "And then we had some additional special-ed costs, that allowed that deficit to increase a bit."

According to the definition of School Choice funding provided by the state Department of Education, the program allows parents to send their children to schools in communities other than the city or town in which they reside with their tuition paid by the sending district to the receiving district.

Historically, School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara said the district had set aside School Choice funds for use only on one-time expenses, such as a boiler failing and needing to be replaced, until two years ago when the unwritten policy had to change.

"Now it's being used for both one-time expenses and operating costs where absolutely necessary," McNamara said on Monday. "We've had to change on that because of the deficits over the last couple of years that have become untenable. ... It's a very difficult situation."

Dracut Public Schools' bus-fee program requires that students in grades 7 through 12 who wish to ride the bus during the 2013-2014 school year pay a fee of $200 per student rider, with a $600 family cap. A waiver of the fee program is available for those students who qualify to receive free and reduced-price lunch.

According to the superintendent's 2012-13 school budget summary, the district received a total of $125,000 in student transportation fees last year.

Among funds received from outside sources, the district received $154,616 in School Choice funding last year. The amount of School Choice funding that may be available to be drawn from this year was yet to be determined, Stone said last week.

McNamara said the School Committee has not discussed increasing the transportation fees, as they are already among the highest in the region at $200 per student rider, with a $600 family cap.

"There's been no discussion of raising any fees beyond where we are right now," said McNamara. "We also have athletic and music fees. We understand that's a lot of money and a drain on parents."

Dracut is among an overwhelming majority of public school districts in Massachusetts that charge fees to offset the costs for transportation service. Others include:

* Tyngsboro Public Schools' transportation fee is $150 per student in grades 7-12, with a $400 family cap.

* Chelmsford public school students in grades 7-12 are required to pay $200 for bus transportation, with a family cap of $500 (minus a $25 discount for paying on time, or plus a $15 late-fee penalty).

* Westford Public Schools charge a transportation fee for certain students during the 2013-2014 school year, including children in grades K-6 whose residence is 2 miles or less from their attending school, and all students in grades 7-12. These students' required fee is $225 per student; $450 for two students; and $600 for three or more students. 

* Tewksbury, Billerica, Bedford and Wilmington are among those school districts that still do not charge any school-busing fees to their students.

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