Busing city students has been a source of controversy for several years and for multiple reasons. Many parents and school officials want the school district to bus their children to school rather than having them walk, citing neighborhood safety concerns and the need to increase attendance. But the cost of transporting city students has mushroomed to more than $60 million annually, and student fighting downtown and at the new transit center have become major problems.
The busing issue has now become even more complicated and expensive. School re-opens on September 2 – just over two months from now – and there is still no solid agreement for transporting students after this summer. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas wants the board to approve a proposal from the Regional Transit Service that would blow an $11.4 million hole in the district's budget for the 2015-2016 school year. This comes just weeks after that budget was approved.
At the school board's meeting last week, board members postponed voting on a contract for the coming school year between RTS and the district. Under the terms of that contract, RTS would bus nearly 2,000 fewer students and use about 40 fewer buses. And the number of students transferring at the transit center would drop to about 700, from 3,700.
But the price for the RTS service would increase by $7.6 million, according to Vargas. And other transportation providers, primarily First Student, would bus the students not being served by RTS, costing an additional $3.8 million.
At last week's meeting, Vargas pleaded with the board to accept the RTS proposal, saying that any delay in reaching an agreement could result in higher costs. But most board members said they had concerns about the increase in costs, and they wanted more information. They also questioned whether the board had explored enough alternatives to RTS.
RTS would not comment on the terms of the contract or the increase in costs. But the school district's spokesperson, Chip Partner, says the increase in RTS costs are likely the result of customizing bus routes so that as many students as possible would bypass the transit center downtown. For instance, most students leaving from East High School would be taken straight from East to a drop-off point in their neighborhood near their home rather than being taken to the transit center to transfer to other buses. That means that RTS would have to provide express route service for about 1,100 more students.
The district would be reimbursed by the state for about 90 percent of the $11.4 million, but that wouldn't happen until 2016. Vargas said the district could ask state officials for financial help to address the immediate problem.
As he had suggested previously, Vargas also told board members that the district could sharply reduce student transportation costs by purchasing RTS bus passes and letting most secondary students ride regular RTS buses. While that could save nearly $10 million annually, RTS officials have said that such a plan wouldn't work. Too many students would need to board regular buses at once and students wouldn't be able to get to school and back promptly.
School district officials and RTS have worked out an agreement for busing students to summer school this summer, but at last week's meeting some board members said the current situation points to much bigger problems with the district's transportation policy.
Board member Jose Cruz said that he was frustrated that the actions of a few unruly students could cost the district millions out of an already tight budget.
"The people here are going to have to make some tough decisions," Cruz said. The district's school choice policy and the transportation plan will have to be thoroughly examined next year, he said. Parents are supposed to choose a school that's in the neighborhood zone where they live, but many don't, and that adds to transportation costs. Cruz said the district may have to enforce the policy in the future.
Board member Malik Evans blasted the district's $65 million transportation budget for next year, calling it unsustainable.
The busing issue could also increase support for neighborhood schools. Many parents and community leaders have argued for years that both students and communities have suffered under school-choice policies.
Board president Van White says the board will hold another meeting, at which he hopes they'll decide whether to accept the RTS proposal or continue to press for another option.