FORT KENT, Maine — Parents in St. Francis were well aware their children would be bused to Fort Kent when they voted last week against appropriating local funds to keep the community’s elementary school open.
But some of those parents this week are reacting to a photo making its rounds online on social networks, showing what they claim are their children packed onto a school bus dangerously overloaded with students.
“I came across that photo on Facebook,” Mandy Ouellette of St.Francis said Thursday morning. “I said, ‘Oh my God, that is my son.’”
The photo shows what appears to be students of all ages sitting three per seat, with some forced to straddle the laps and knees of other students in the bus’s aisle.
Ouellette said she immediately went to the district’s head office to show them the image and demand answers Wednesday.
“They told me they are looking into it,” she said.
On Thursday morning School Administrative District 27 interim Superintendent Peter Caron said his office is aware of the situation and had received several phone calls on it.
“We were alerted to the concerns regarding the number of students on the bus,” he said. “We are definitely concerned about this circumstance.”
Caron said he has discussed the situation with the district’s head of transportation, Peter Saucier.
On Thursday, Saucier referred all questions to Caron.
According to Caron, the school bus in question has a capacity of 72 pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students. When all students attending the Fort Kent elementary, middle and high schools from St. Francis and Allagash are on board, it is at capacity.
That was the case the opening day of the this school year on Tuesday, he said, and any overcrowding may be because of students not assigned to that bus who had special passes allowing them onboard to visit friends or family.
The route stretches from the western end of Allagash to near the Violette Settlement Road in Fort Kent, a distance of about 28 miles, according to Caron.
“We were aware of the total number of students who would regularly ride that bus,” Caron said. “That bus has been typically pretty full. We knew it was going to be tight, but we did not know until right now how tight.”
Beginning Friday, Caron said, the route will be shortened on the Fort Kent end, reducing the student count on the bus by eight. Those students will be picked up by a bus taking over that portion of the route, he said.
Earlier this summer the SAD 27 board of directors voted to close the St. Francis Elementary school and bus the remaining 25 pre-kindergarten through grade five students to Fort Kent.
Residents of the small community west of Fort Kent could have kept the school open but needed to come up with more than $300,000 of local funds to support it. That option failed at referendum last week.
Districtwide, SAD 27 voters have twice turned down a proposed 2015-2016 school budget at referendum, and the district started the school year operating on the $11.1 million budget most recently approved at town meeting. The board has not put forth a new budget proposal.
Ouellette, who has two children being bused to school in Fort Kent, said she favored the move but is not pleased with the current transportation situation.
“I don’t mind them going to Fort Kent, but there is a second bus just sitting in St. Francis they could use,” she said.
Ouellette said her son, who is 7 years old and in the second grade, suffers from asthma, and riding in the overcrowded, hot bus made him physically ill.
“On Tuesday, my children told me about the conditions on the bus,” she said. “My son was sick all night with nausea and a headache. That is not like him.”
Caron said the district is exploring all options to ease the crowding on the St. Francis bus.
“We do want to make sure the students are safe,” he said. “Our first job is to be in compliance relative to the number of [students] on the bus, and we are.”
But Caron also is aware the quality of that ride comes into play.
“Our second concern is to ensure the safety and, as much as we can, the comfort of the students,” he said. “We are looking into ways to reduce the numbers on that bus.”
Solutions may include adding a second bus to the route and limiting the number of special permission passes issued to students, Caron said.
The SAD 27 board of directors is meeting 6 p.m. Monday at Fort Kent Community High School, and the status of the St. Francis Elementary School closure is on the posted agenda.