Jul. 24--CHELMSFORD -- With little more than a week remaining to pay the newly implemented $200 school-bus fee, some parents allege they're being taxed twice.
     Town Meeting representative Brian Latina said an added charge of $11 for parents who pay the bus fee via credit card is out of line and against state law.
     "Dual pricing is the key word," Latina said. "It's definitely a tax, a desperate act to refill the coffers to pay for the increase in school costs beyond transportation costs."
     According to Rich Thuma, an information specialist at the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, a business can offer a discount to the consumer when paying cash, but they cannot charge a fee for using a credit card.
     That might be the case if the School Department was a corporation, but under state law, government entities are exempt from commercial transactions, according to Town Counsel Andy Waugh.
     Waugh stressed that the school district is not profiting from the $11 "convenience fee."
     After taking in the $200 bus fee, Waugh said the School Department has to pay an additional $6 to the credit-card company, and another $5 to a company called Meerkat, which enabled the School Department with an online system to accept credit-card payments.
     "That extra $11 allows the schools to still end up with $200 for the buses, after paying the credit-card companies," Waugh said.
     The process was established after the School Committee received
     approval from lawyers, and also following discussions with the Westford school district, which created the same method of payment for buses about four years ago.
     Creating another option to make the fee palatable for parents was necessary, added School Committee member Angelo Taranto.
     "We listened and were very concerned about parents who said they couldn't pay the whole fee up front," Taranto said. "So we gave them an outlet for convenience."
     About, 4,050 students ride the bus to school. School Business Manager Robert Cruickshank said to date, about 1,820 students have registered for the fall, out of which 1,038 paid a bus fee. Students taking free and reduced-price lunch qualify for a bus-fee waiver.
     About 150 parents used a credit card to pay for the bus, Cruickshank said. Parents have until Aug. 1 to register.
     Latina, who has two children riding the bus to school, said many parents are concerned about the safety risks involved with students who will be forced to walk or drive to school as a result of the new fee. Latina understands he has no choice but to pay $200 if his children are to ride the bus to school this fall.
     But the Chelmsford parent said he believes the School Department will most likely have to refund the $11 convenience fee to parents.
     "There is no right way for the schools to be doing this," Latina said, who has called several state departments seeking answers.
     Taranto said similar concerns were brought up in Westford when they implemented a bus fee.
     "It's unfortunate that we have to charge for transportation at all," he said. "We're working hard to find more assistance to alleviate the cost burden. But money from the state level, like in most people's pockets, is limited."


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