Rural school districts hard hit by transportation cuts
By Diana Lambert
The Sacramento Bee
Published: Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
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Four of the six schools in the Eastern Sierra Unified School District are scattered along Highway 395, a two-lane road that meanders through scenic Mono County in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains.
Students often travel as far as 35 miles – each way – to school and back. The drive can be treacherous, especially in winter when rain and snow make the roadways slippery. Traffic near schools and a dearth of street- lights make travel hazardous for drivers pulling into school parking lots and students traveling on foot, said Stacey Adler, superintendent of Mono County schools.
But things could get much worse come Jan. 2. That's when the district's 500 students will have to find their own way to school, unless they live more than six miles away.
Last week, still grappling with a budget crisis, California became the first state in the nation to completely eliminate transportation funding for public schools. Gov. Jerry Brown cut $248 million in state funding that helps put school buses on the road and reduced student attendance funding by $79.6 million. Those cuts take effect the second half of the academic year.
Eastern Sierra Unified is among the districts that will pare back busing for the remainder of the school year. But school officials say most rural districts don't have the luxury of completely abandoning bus service, given the distances their students travel to school. They call transportation a safety issue for students and an economic necessity for working families.
"It really hurts small rural districts and puts us in a place where we can't recover," said Jim Shock, superintendent and principal of Arcohe School in rural south Sacramento County. "We're in a situation where we have to do busing. No one lives within a safe distance to walk to school."
Rural school officials worry that parents will pull their children from classes and enroll them in schools closer to their jobs if busing is eliminated. This would take even more attendance dollars away from school coffers.
In addition, said officials from the Small School Districts Association, cutting transportation funding means unequal cuts across districts.
The Millbrae Elementary School District in San Mateo County, for example, will lose $1 per student in state transportation funding, while Desert Center Unified in Riverside County has the biggest cut per student – $2,216, according to data from Strategic Education Services, a lobbying group.
The reductions equal the amount districts would have received in state busing funds.
"It's devastatingly disproportionate," said Dick Glock, superintendent of Amador County schools. Amador County will lose about $172 per student in transportation funds, he said.
"I read that it will be about $14 for other districts. It's zero for Beverly Hills. So how can that be fair?" Glock asked.
Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for the governor, acknowledged that the cuts are unfair.
"The reason they are unfair is that they were avoidable," Ashford said. The governor was forced to pull the trigger on cuts because voters weren't given the chance to weigh in on tax increases, she said.
The Small School Districts Association will ask lawmakers to restore transportation funding when the Legislature reconvenes in January, said David Walrath, a lobbyist for the association. The group is recommending the state cut education funding by $42 per student instead of eliminating bus funds, he said.
California's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, said last week that it will sue the state to halt the school bus cut. The district says it is required to bus 35,000 students under a desegregation court order, and another 13,000 students with special needs under state and federal laws.
Statewide, about 18 percent of California school students take the bus, said Bob Riley of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
Most Sacramento County districts already have only limited busing, offering service to students in rural areas and those with special needs. But they are reluctant to cut back further.
"You are relying on attendance, and transportation for your students in rural areas is pretty critical," said Priscilla Cox, a trustee with Elk Grove Unified.
The cuts will be especially painful to rural districts, where up to 90 percent of the students take the bus, said Cox, who is the California School Board Association director for the region that includes Amador, Alpine, Mono, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties.
At this point, few school districts in the outlying areas are planning to completely eliminate busing – at least not this school year.
"In the foothills, we have steep, winding, sharp-curved roads, and it's very dangerous to have 40 or 50 private vehicles traveling those roads as opposed to yellow buses," said Amador County's Glock.
The Rescue Union School District near El Dorado Hills tried to cut three bus routes at the end of last school year in anticipation of state cuts.
"We found within the first few weeks of school that it wasn't going to work," said Ellen Driscoll, president of the school board.
The district has a challenging geography, Driscoll said, noting that five of the district's seven schools don't have sidewalk access. "We strongly feel that providing transportation to schools that can't be accessed and to rural families is the right thing to do," she said.
Many Yolo County families don't have the financial means to provide transportation for their children, said Jorge Ayala, superintendent of Yolo County schools. He said many parents don't have cars or the flexibility to leave work to get their children to and from school.
Arcohe School would lose about 100 of its 400 students if the district stopped busing, Shock said.
"It's not an option for us," Shock said.
He said the district will find another way to absorb the $80,000 loss this year.
Children in the Elverta Joint Elementary School District may have to spend as much as 1 1/2 hours on the bus if the district takes another bus off the road because of scarce funding, said Michael Borgaard, superintendent.
He said his district is made up of long, rural roads and low-income families.
"It's just baffling," Borgaard said. "It seems to affect the most vulnerable children."