VANCEBORO, Maine — Jill Mason is days away from becoming a grandmother.
She soon will be taking care of daughter Breeanna’s newborn while the new mom is off to high school at Lee Academy, where she’s a junior. How Breeanna, 18, gets to and from school — which is a 94-mile round trip from her home in Vanceboro — remains to be seen. Jill Mason says her days of driving her kids to meet a school bus are over.
A population-131 border town located about 20 miles up the St. Croix River from the Washington County community of Calais, Vanceboro is tasked with meeting the educational needs of 22 students. Enrollment in its K-8 elementary school is 14. There are eight high school students, all attending high school in Lee, with Vanceboro property taxes paying each student’s $10,000 annual tuition.
Vanceboro once operated a school bus that was used to transport high school students six miles to nearby Lambert Lake, where an Unorganized Territory bus would meet them. Both buses were eliminated and now, as a cost-cutting measure, the Vanceboro students travel 22 miles to Topsfield in an eight-passenger van. There they get on another larger school bus for the remaining 25 miles to the high school in Lee.
After the driver is accounted for, the Vanceboro van has seats remaining for seven students. There are eight high school students. You do the math.
Jill Mason has six children, including three girls who attend Lee Academy. Last October, 16-year-old Adrianna decided to live in Vanceboro with her mom rather than live in Illinois with her dad. Her mother informed the Vanceboro school system that there soon would be another student heading to Lee Academy.
When Adrianna arrived, getting her girls to and from Lee Academy became, as Mason describes it, “something out of the Twilight Zone.”
Mason says she was upset when the van driver called on a schoolday morning last fall and asked which of her three girls would be staying home, as there were not enough seats that day in the van.
“I told her, ‘They’re all going to go,’” Mason said. “Since October, I’ve been putting gas in my van, getting the older kids up at 4 a.m. and out the door to Topsfield by 6:15. And then it’s back to meet the bus in Topsfield at 3:30.
Daughter Jordan, 17, is into drama and cheerleading, and daughter Adrianna, 16, plays basketball.
“When they’re doing that, I have to make the 94-mile trip to and from Lee,” their mother says. “It’s all very complicated, and I’m tired of it. They used to have a dormitory where kids involved in after-school activities could spend the night. But the town stopped paying for that. So now, if a family doesn’t have money for gas or has a mom who doesn’t like being on the road at all hours, those kids don’t do sports.”
Given that the town is unable to provide transportation for all of its high school students, Jill Mason and her husband, Sherman, were more than surprised recently to receive a letter from Vanceboro Superintendent of Schools William Dobbins, which expressed concern about Breeanna’s nine unexcused absences. In that letter, Dobbins tells the couple “the School Committee can recommend that tuition be withheld if we do not get a resolution to this matter.”
Breeanna’s physician, her mother said, since has confirmed that most of her school absences were because of appointments related to her pregnancy. The superintendent’s suggested Dec. 14 meeting between Jill and Sherman and the school committee never happened, because of scheduling conflicts.
Dobbins said the Vanceboro school system’s annual budget is approximately $300,000. Of that amount, $5,000 has been budgeted for transportation fuel costs. Use of the eight-passenger van is being donated by Lee Academy, which owns it.
Penny Grass, chairwoman of the school committee and a volunteer bus driver, sees the transportation issue as a nagging headache the town may not endure for much longer. Grass said she doesn’t accept any money to drive the eight-passenger van to and from Topsfield “because I know the town doesn’t have any.” She says she only called one time to ask if one of Jill Mason’s girls would be staying home because of a lack of seats.
Grass said the school committee has been reimbursing Jill Mason for her gasoline and that Mason was, in essence, recruited to drive as she was the only parent of a high school student who drives a van.
Grass said the school committee never has revoked tuition, which the letter to the Masons indicated as an option. “And I don’t know that we ever would,” she said.
“We are very concerned about attendance, as we’re paying that tuition whether these kids are in school or not,” Grass said. “So we adopted a policy that, if you have more than 10 unexcused absences, we meet with the parents to try to get it through their heads that these kids need to be in school.”
Grass feels that what is often lost in the debate over how to get Vanceboro’s high school students to and from school is the legal reality that the town is not obligated to provide transportation for high school students. “It’s just something we’ve always done.”
Maine Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier verified Thursday that the municipality is not required to provide transportation for high school students.
So what happens next year, when it is expected there will be 12 high schoolers?
“We’re getting to the point financially where we can’t run a bus,” Grass said. “We don’t have a bus, and we don’t have a driver. I expect we’ll end the run and just leave it to the parents to get their kids to and from school.”
Providing transportation for high school students, says Superintendent Dobbins, has been “challenging.” Ending transportation services, he said, is “a possibility.”
“The community will look at different options,” he said. “But it could happen.”