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Rural schools struggle to keep buses running

Joanna Lin/California WatchBus driver Petra Schultz drives about 35 Bonny Doon Elementary School students in Santa Cruz County an hour to and from school every day.

There are no sidewalks, bike lanes or public transportation in Forks of Salmon, a tiny, forest-shrouded community deep in the mountains of Siskiyou County. For seven of the 10 students at Forks of Salmon Elementary School, getting to class means taking a 45-minute school bus ride on 18 miles of a narrow, two-lane road that twists and turns with the Salmon River.

Until this month, most of the $32,000 the school spends each year to bus students was covered by the state. But now, Forks of Salmon and other rural school districts are grappling with how to keep their buses running. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed eliminating school transportation funding [PDF] next year, just weeks after announcing trigger cuts that wiped out $248 million for buses this year. 

California does not require school districts to provide home-to-school transportation, except for certain special education students and those who are severely disabled or orthopedically impaired; less than 16 percent of students statewide ride school buses. But ridership is significantly higher in many rural areas, where sparsely populated, sprawling communities necessitate bus service, officials say.

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"If we don't have transportation, we don't have school," said Tina Bennett, Forks of Salmon's superintendent, who also serves as its principal, first-through-third-grade teacher and bus driver.

The nearest gas station to Forks of Salmon charges $4.95 a gallon, and the roads, prone to rockslides and slick with ice in the winter, often are dangerous to drive. Not all families can afford or feel comfortable driving under those conditions, Bennett said.

School districts in the state spent more than $1.2 billion to transport students in 2009-10, the most recent year for which data was available. State funds covered just 38 percent of those costs. With last month's trigger cut, districts lost about 50 percent of the state funds they would have received this year.

For the Southern Humboldt Unified School District, which on average buses 650 of its 780 students every day, the trigger cut means its transportation coffers are empty. 

"We'll be running out of money in 45 days," Superintendent Jim Stewart said Thursday. A day earlier, the district sent layoff notices to all 14 of its transportation employees, including 11 bus drivers.

Many districts planned for the trigger cut and have found ways to absorb it in the short run. Cox Bar School in Trinity County is tapping its general fund reserves to continue bus service this year for its 14 students. Forks of Salmon plans to retire its school bus and instead use a more economical nine-person van it has been loaning to another district.

But after the school year ends, districts say they'll have little or nothing to cushion transportation cuts – a reduction that state Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said is "ongoing in nature."

Transportation expenses are substantial for many rural districts. Most have relied heavily on state funding, which makes payments based on the cost per mile traveled. As a result, rural districts are hit disproportionately by transportation cuts, said David Walrath, legislative advocate for the Small School Districts' Association.

In this year's trigger cut, schools that provide transportation lost $248 million in addition to the $79.6 million revenue limit reduction to all schools. While revenue was reduced by about $13.30 per student, the transportation cut varied widely: For example, the San Francisco Unified School District lost $22.98 per student, whereas the Death Valley Unified School District lost $1,734.52, according to an analysis [PDF] by the California School Boards Association.

Joanna Lin/California WatchSeven of the 10 students at Forks of Salmon Elementary School ride the school bus 18 miles each way, which takes 45 minutes.

"It just doesn't seem equitable," said Stephanie Siddens, superintendent and principal of Bonny Doon Elementary School in Santa Cruz County, which used to receive about 72 percent of its transportation funds from the state. "Just because we provide transportation and we need it, we get cut more."

About 35 of the 129 students at Bonny Doon ride the bus on an average day, but as many as 71 take the bus at some time during the year. It takes more than an hour for the bus to travel its bumpy 25-mile route to school, which sits in a grove of redwood trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

For Trinity Kite, a fourth-grader at the school, the walk from her house to the bus stop alone is 1.5 miles. Once on board, Trinity said, "sometimes I get bus-sick because the roads are so winding."

"It's different from being in town, where you can walk to school," Siddens said of the community. "Kids here cannot walk to school."

Walrath, of the school districts association, is working with other education groups to lobby lawmakers to reverse the transportation trigger cut, or at the very least make the cut an across-the-board revenue reduction for all schools. He said such changes could be made within a few weeks "if we can generate enough will."

"What if the director of the Department of Finance underestimated and was too conservative on revenues? We could end up in the May (budget) revision having made major problems for parents and kids, particularly from low-income families and special education, and discover it wasn't necessary," Walrath said.

In the meantime, districts are looking for anywhere they can cut before stopping bus service.

Cox Bar School might have to dip into a deferred maintenance fund for potholes and cracks that it's been saving for five years, said Cherie Donahue, the school's superintendent and principal. Bonny Doon, which recently increased the price of its annual bus pass to $200, will consider cutting staff hours, Siddens said.

At Southern Humboldt Unified, Stewart hopes the district can siphon enough money from the classroom to provide some bus service, but it won't be "anything near" the 11 routes it offers now, he said. It also will consider charging students who are not low-income to ride the bus and ask families to carpool.

"There's really not many viable alternatives than, say, driving your kids to school," Stewart said. "When you talk about driving an hour to bring your kid to school and then you've got to drive an hour home, that's two hours, and you've got to repeat that in the afternoon. … We're talking a huge expense."

Stewart predicts that without bus service, attendance will fall, hurting funding even more.

"It's kind of a snowball," he said. "We can't get them here because we have no money, they can't get here, we have less money, and on and on."

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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