Monday, August 24, 2009

School Bus Cuts Face Safety Concerns

I live across the street from Chaparral High School in Temecula, Calif., and every school morning and afternoon dozens of yellow school buses roll in and out of the campus's sprawling parking lot. Temecula is a semi-rural area 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles and its boundaries extend miles in all directions.

As most school districts, Temecula offers bus transportation to students living outside a determined radius, usually 1.5 miles, and by law for all handicapped and special education pupils. It was during last year's peak price of gasoline and diesel averaging more than $4 per gallon that I began wondering how in tarnation can these districts afford what I considered a luxury.

Well, gasoline prices dropped but the nation was discovering it was in a recession resulting in a revolting loss of tax revenues, a large portion of which goes to finance school districts, and, by extension, school bus transportation.

I am a product of rural America, raised on a farm two and one-half miles from San Juan Capistrano in southern Orange County, Calif., and yes, the yellow school bus picked up and returned us farm boys from elementary and high school. If we missed the bus, we walked. Our fathers told us the same blarney we've all heard: "When I was your age, we walked five miles in snow to school back in Illinois."

So, it comes as no big surprise that school bus transportation is getting the ax in almost every state in our nation. In California, school transportation funding was reduced by 20% in the last budget signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some districts are adjusting led by the Elk Grove district in Sacramento County in which parents, school, administrators and local transportation officials adopted a program that dropped 3,800 students from busing while improving safe walking and bicycling hazards on designated school routes. The district saved $3 million from its $10 million transportation budget.

Cutting school bus transportation may seem easy but it isn't. There's a safety factor, especially for elementary and middle school children, to consider. It poses a hardship on working parents who must find ways to deliver their kids to school on schedule.

Although I think his argument is bogus, Richard Odegaard, Elk Grove's associate superintendent, said school officials are concerned about cutting too much. They fear deeper reductions could mean fewer children attending school, translating into less money schools receive for average daily attendance, or ADA. "If we were to cut home-to-school transportation and we lost three-quarters of a percent of ADA, we would lose the value of cutting transportation," Odegaard said.

The safety issue cannot be underestimated because each year hundreds of students are killed walking or bicycling to and from school. Reports the Bikes Belong Coalition:

Cutting bus routes without a simultaneous and planned effort to address student safety concerns will likely lead to greater traffic congestion, poorer air quality, and higher parent transportation costs due to an increase in parents driving children to school. It is essential that school districts collaborate with parents and city officials to make it safer for children to walk and bicycle, particularly when cuts to school bus services are being proposed.

Here are some of the efforts taken by states reported on the Bikes Belong Coalition website:

• The state of Florida provides funding to local school districts to help underwrite the cost of busing children who live close to school but cannot walk or bicycle due to unsafe conditions. State law links the availability of this funding to a plan to fix the hazard. School boards that request hazard bus funding must work with the appropriate state or local governmental agencies to correct the hazard within a reasonable time.

• The state of Illinois reimburses schools for hazard busing when children live less than 1.5 miles to school, but the route is determined to be unsafe for children walking and bicycling. Costs for hazard busing have increased 67% in seven years, and the number of students enrolled in hazard busing is increasing 1.2% per year even while student enrollment is dropping. Illinois House Bill 3202, the Hazardous Busing Mitigation Act, would allow school districts to use a portion of their hazard busing reimbursement from the state to repair the hazards, allowing children to walk and bicycle and allowing the school to reduce busing costs.

• Washington state legislation requires that each elementary school develop suggested route plans identifying the safest routes for children walking and bicycling. The state provides a guidebook to help school administrators develop the school walk routes and work with public works officials to remedy deficiencies.

About 23 percent of school districts surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators say they are reducing or eliminating school transportation for the coming school year as part of cost-cutting measures. That's up from the 14 percent who considered such measures during the 2008-2009 year.

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