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Bus funds restored, but some schools lose more

Bus Stop to Nowhere–Southern Humboldt Chapter/FacebookProtesters from the Southern Humboldt Unified School District fight transportation cuts at the state Capitol in January.

California schools will no longer lose $248 million in transportation funding under legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed Friday – a move applauded by many education officials and school districts that had decried the loss as a disproportionate burden on rural schools. 

But for some, the move is bittersweet at best: Hundreds of schools now stand to lose more money than they did before the law.

Instead of targeting school bus money, SB 81 allows school districts, county offices of education and charter schools to absorb the $248 million hit – a loss of about $42 per student – anywhere in their budgets. For districts that had little or no bus funding to begin with and for charter schools, which do not receive state transportation dollars, the shift means a bigger midyear budget cut.

So while the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County will retain its $30 per student in school bus funding, it will give up a greater amount from its general fund. Still, said Superintendent Dennis Smith, the new cut is more fair.

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"If the state is in a financial bind or crisis, which it is, it should probably apply the pain equally. And although it costs us more, I think that it's fair to apply it across the board," he said.

Mary Varner, superintendent of the Rio Dell Elementary School District in Humboldt County, agreed. Her district does not have a school bus program and was therefore unaffected by the original transportation trigger cut.

"Even though we don't have transportation, I fully understand the huge impact that would have been on districts like Southern Humboldt," she said.

The Southern Humboldt Unified School District, a neighboring district to Rio Dell, would have lost nearly $650 per student in transportation dollars. 

"Not having buses here would have been the end of our community as we know it," said Superintendent Jim Stewart. "If they can't get their kids to school, they would have to do home schooling or move."

The district is prepared to absorb the revised cut because prior to the transportation cut, it had planned to lose as much as $300 per student.

Many of the state's 982 charter schools had planned to lose about the same amount, said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. But many have since enacted budgets based on a much smaller reduction – the $13.30 per student all schools lost in December's trigger cuts.

"We know our members, in the seventh month of our fiscal year, are just not positioned to take the cut without incurring significant pain," he said.

Wallace said the cut exacerbates existing funding inequities that hurt charter schools. Charter schools last year received, on average, $395, or 7 percent, less per student in general purpose funding than did school districts, a recent report [PDF] by the Legislative Analyst's Office found.

"This issue could have been addressed in such a way as to not inflict pain on charter schools," Wallace said. "At this point, it's a decision that's been made. And the challenge before us now is to look at the future budgets and see what progress we can make."

School districts agree on the need to address future budgets. Even though the restoration of school bus funding was a victory for many districts, its relief is only temporary: Brown has proposed eliminating home-to-school transportation next year.

Without continued support from the state, Southern Humboldt will dip into its budget reserve to fund just 25 percent of its current bus services.

"That's all we'd be able to afford and still have programs and schools that it's worth getting kids to," Stewart said. "I've got to believe they (state lawmakers) are going to do something for transportation."

Schools won't know whether transportation is funded for several months, until the state passes a budget. In the meantime, Southern Humboldt is celebrating the fact that it can run school buses for at least a few more months. At Wednesday's school board meeting, 14 transportation employees who received layoff notices last month will eat cake and tear up their pink slips.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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