School bus service in Clark County: Wheels of fortune?

Some say it’s time to put the brakes on status-quo busing

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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The big, yellow school bus: Hands down, it’s the foremost icon of public education in America.

New busing formula to go into effect

Following up on state audits that confirmed many school districts are far from fully reimbursed by Washington state for daily “basic” education bus service, state legislators have approved a new, improved funding formula.

Spurred in part by a February 2010 court ruling on Washington school funding equity, a prototype formula goes into effect on Sept. 1. It was written into comprehensive school-funding reforms folded into Senate Bill 2261, adopted in the 2010 session.

There’s not much new money directed to mitigate funding imbalances, so far. Educators hold out hope for positive movement, once Washington’s budget picture brightens.

One significant change: A more accurate count of student riders.

Rather than a one-week “snapshot” per school year, districts now must measure ridership during a three-day period: Three different periods, spread across the school year.

For each three-day window, the highest and lowest counts will be tossed. Of the remaining three counts, the highest and lowest will again be tossed, producing one final median number.

Schools might drop some bus service

Facing budget reductions in 2009, Evergreen Public Schools shuffled kindergarten schedules and school start times to eliminate midday bus runs and condense several bus routes, saving about $500,000 annually.

This spring, Evergreen leaders may choose to drop bus service for hundreds of grade-school students.

Washington state reimburses school districts for service to students living one mile or farther from each elementary school. Like many districts, Evergreen has served students living closer in — typically to one-half mile — in part because of dangerous arterial street crossings. Local tax levy funds cover the extra expense.

Now the district appears poised to drop all bus service within seven-tenths of a mile, on average, of its elementary schools — widening the walking-zone radius. Exceptions would be made for hazards. Estimated savings for 2011-12: $350,000.

A similar change was made a decade ago for Evergreen middle- and high-school students.

Vancouver Public Schools might duplicate the move. Leaders have unveiled plans to draw wider “walking area” lines around Hough, Sacajawea and Eleanor Roosevelt elementary schools. They hope to introduce a volunteer-guided “walking school bus” campaign, modeled on those in place at Washington and Hazel Dell elementary schools.

Estimated savings from cutting seven bus routes and bus workers: $350,000 annually.

Did you know?

In Washington state, about 435,000 pupils ride on school buses on an average weekday morning. That’s 43.5 percent of the state’s roughly 1 million public K-12 students.

About 26 million U.S. students ride public school buses each day, the National Association for Pupil Transportation reports. The number has stayed mostly steady in recent years, with spikes when gas prices soared, then dropped as prices fell, the group said.

And yet look around Clark County most weekdays: Scores of cars stream into school driveways, whether the urban Vancouver and Evergreen schools or outposts such as Hockinson, when parents drop off or pick up children each morning and afternoon. Other gaggles of students walk or bike to class.

For decades, free school bus service has been taken for granted. Standard practice and state rules have seen to that.

But in an era of constrained school budgets and resources, weighed against creeping transportation costs, perhaps it’s time to question the status quo.

Should buses still ply every country lane and each suburban subdivision?

Should school parents assume more responsibility and foot more of the bill — pay a fee for daily bus service, maybe — to ease the burden on the rest of taxpayers?

Washington taxpayers spend millions on busing.

For the 2009-10 school year, $256.8 million came from the state general fund. School districts chipped in $132.5 million more, to cover the total $389.3 million spent on grades K-12 public student busing.

(This is strictly “to-and-from” campus delivery, including special routes for disabled or other students. Other trips for athletics, field trips and the like don’t receive state support.)

Three Clark County school districts rank in the top 10 of bus miles and costs racked up across Washington in 2009-10.

In Evergreen Public Schools, buses logged 2.04 million miles and cost $8.9 million. Vancouver Public Schools buses logged 1.7 million miles and cost $6.9 million. The sprawling Battle Ground district: 1.85 million miles for $6.8 million.

Through economic boom and bust and gasoline price swings, ridership has remained mostly steady. It’s down about 3.7 percent across Clark County and Woodland the past five years, due in part to expanded walking zones near some schools and other schedule changes.

Idea raised, dismissed

Now, $389 million isn’t a huge share of dollars spent on Washington’s K-12 public schools. Nearly $10 billion was spent, total.

More closely, Battle Ground’s in-house busing tab amounted to 2.2 percent of its $114.5 million operating budget.

Evergreen spent about 1.2 percent of its operating budget on busing; Vancouver spent about 1.1 percent.

But, dollars are dollars. And when state legislators begin to slash support from Olympia and local educators outline potential school program and staffing cuts, every percent and category has earned new scrutiny.

State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said bus funding came up, briefly, in December when House Education Appropriations and Oversight leadership and staff assistants huddled to explore cost-savings options for the 2011 Legislature.

“It was just one item on a long list of items to talk about,” said Probst, the committee vice chairman. But the idea was quickly dropped. “The drawback is, you’d be changing the statutory definition of basic education, which is one of hardest things to do,” he said.

More recently, a gentleman raised the idea at an Evergreen district budget forum. Superintendent John Deeder and others detailed a list of possible budget cuts that surpass $24 million, then took audience input.

“Get a grip, America, the free stuff’s over. The free stuff’s over,” the senior citizen said calmly, in the Evergreen High auditorium. He proposed a 50-cent trip fee for middle and high school bus riders. “All you gotta do is eliminate your cellphone bill, and you can ride the bus free,” he said, drawing chuckles.

Deeder smiled and said the notion had some merit, but also noted that state law would need to be changed.

‘Integral’ service

And there’s the rub.

In 1983, state Superior Court Judge Robert Doran affirmed that student transportation is integral to public K-12 education. His second landmark ruling elaborated on his initial 1977 decision (re: Seattle School District) that reaffirmed ample funding of public schools is Washington state government’s “paramount duty” under its constitution.

While there remains robust debate over what level of school computers, supplies or other support fits the rubric of “basic education,” few politicians or educators have raised a whisper about busing in the three decades since.

State legislators quickly wrote busing support into administrative law, have tweaked funding formulas a few times — more changes are due in September, triggered by state audits that found districts were unevenly funded — and have otherwise left basic “to-and-from” busing alone.

Even fiscal conservative GOP legislators such as Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama and Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield take a dim view of messing with school buses.

Orcutt has heard constituents pose the idea that “parents should pitch in a little bit for their kids’ tuition or busing,” he said. Ultimately, they already do, he said: Some schools charge extra class or technology fees, athletics or arts fees, and the like.

He questions fair pricing for busing. “How do you do that? Is it based on child miles, or what (families) can afford?” he said. “Where does it end? Are we going to make them pay a certain amount for everything (students) do? Or would we make them pay a certain amount for each class they take?”

Both Orcutt and Zarelli say the real issue is smart management. They like consortiums, such as the four-district bus pool created by Kalama, Woodland, Ridgefield and La Center schools, or contracted service such as that provided by Petermann Northwest in Battle Ground.

Neither legislator finds reason to chip away at the public’s larger obligation.

“I think everyone sees that transportation and getting kids to school is integral” to public education, Zarelli said.

Orcutt sees pitfalls of prompting more parents to drive students to school, by imposing fees or trimming service, or both. Imagine the campus congestion and delays if 30 more cars show up for each bus route abandoned, he suggested.

“Making sure we get our kids there in the most cost-effective and time-effective and safest manner as possible is something the state should reasonably be in the business of funding,” Orcutt said.

Long tradition

That line of reasoning is well-honored by U.S. school history.

When consolidation of tiny schoolhouses that once dotted the American countryside hit full stride at the turn of the 20th century, public school districts didn’t hesitate to jump into the transportation business.

Uniform access to education quickly became entrenched in state law, and with it public responsibility to transport students and authority to collect taxes for that purpose. (After all, school attendance was, and remains today, compulsory.) The first “school hacks” were horse-drawn buggies.

By 1900, 18 states had granted school districts transportation responsibility. By 1919, every state had done so, including Washington. As U.S. population soared, suburbs and school zones expanded, traffic dangers multiplied and there was no looking back.

Today, busing proponents sound three themes:

Safety. “The school bus is far and away the safest means” of student transportation, said Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bear him out. From 2000 to 2009, the average number of school-age passengers (18 and younger) killed in school bus accidents each year was six.

Total vehicle passengers 15 and younger killed in U.S. traffic accidents, in 2009 alone: 1,538. That’s about four deaths per day, the reason motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans 3 to 14 years old, the NHTSA notes.

That doesn’t count the new teen drivers out there, victims of an inordinate number of accidents and deaths. “Teenagers driving themselves are 44 more times likely to be killed,” Riley said. Not to mention the threat they may pose to all others.

Congestion. Officially, the American School Bus Council says a single full-size school bus keeps about 36 cars off the road.

Add the U.S. totals, and impressive numbers pop up: With about 480,000 buses making daily runs, that’s more than 17 million auto trips eliminated, the council says.

Start charging fees, and the result will be more parents and perhaps teen drivers making the trips themselves, critics say. School day commuters in Clark County might not appreciate all the sudden company.

There are fuel consumption and air pollution issues, too.

“The community and parents are going to put more fuel in those 36 cars” than one school bus would use, said Riley, the bus advocate. “The community at large quadruples, or more, what’s spent on fuel,” he said — at a time when prices have soared.

Reliability. “The more difficult you make it for kids to go to school, the less likely it is for them to be there,” said Dan Steele, Washington Association of School Administrators assistant executive director.

“There is a reason we have public, vs. private, education,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to provide a free education and then limit access to kids to get there.” Charging fees or cutting bus routes, or both, would seem to increase the chance some students will just skip classes instead, he said.

“How many kids would say, ‘My Dad can’t take me’ — they start walking, and say, ‘You know what, I’m just not going to school today,’” Steele said.

Hazards multiply

The right to free busing isn’t inviolable. The key legal issue, in Washington state, is “whether the lack of transportation would be a barrier to access to a basic education,” said Allan Jones, state director of student transportation.

That’s why a disabled student living within one mile of school might be bused, Jones said. And why the Spokane school district has chosen to make older students walk as far as two miles, even though the state would fully reimburse bus service as near as one mile from campus.

“The school board has the right to determine school bus service … what routes are to be run,” he said. Some district boards in Clark County have done just that. They’ve pushed out elementary bus boundaries to save dollars, figuring students can safely walk or bike, instead (see box), depending on neighborhood conditions.

Mary Beth Lynn, budget manager for Battle Ground schools, doubts her district would mimic Spokane.

“I can’t speak for the district as a whole. (But) how far would parents really want their children to walk, how safe would they really feel?” she said. “Two miles would be a good half-hour,” and there are too many predator worries or other concerns to satisfy most parents, she said. “I can’t imagine that we’d want to push our boundaries out that far.”

Locally, most educators frown on any dramatic busing reforms.

One administrator said imposing busing fees would make school families who’ve voted for sizable property taxes feel “they’re getting nickel-and-dimed” by the district.

Lynn knows many of her district’s roads have thin shoulders and deep ditches, making them unsafe for pedestrians.

“No sidewalks, and you’re talking narrow country roads. Do you want first- and second-graders walking there? In my opinion, probably no,” Lynn said.

There also are few safe collection points, if bus routes were condensed to save money, she said. “For us … diminished service would mean our parents would have to drive our kids.”

Mark Mansell, superintendent of La Center schools who previously led a tiny district in remote Eastern Washington wheat country, said the days of yore, hiking to school “uphill both ways,” are likely gone for good. There’s just too much speeding traffic and other hazards, he said.

“What’s an appropriate road to walk on, compared to when we were kids, is very different,” Mansell said. Nowadays, district residents “expect door-to-door service,” he said — noting the privilege may be yanked for an unruly student. “Ultimately, we have the responsibility to make access to school as seamless as possible,” he said.

Still, Mansell knows a certain portion of parents elect to drive their children to school each day, no matter the rising costs. “Parents want to see them walk in the building,” he said, in the wake of high-profile abductions. “Some of that’s probably justifiable these days.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.