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News Update

Transportation Takes a Hit

Budget shortfalls mean fewer school buses.

Education funding cuts in this tough economy mean current students may once again tell their grandchildren, “When I was your age, I had to walk to school uphill—both ways.”

For example, a budget shortfall in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas means that students living inside a two-mile radius of its 81 campuses will walk or carpool to school.

“We’re not cutting fat,” says Kelli Duram, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District assistant superintendent for communication. “We’re cutting into bone marrow now.”

Duram is not alone. About one in four school districts has cut transportation funding for 2009-2010, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators. Also, one in four school districts has increased transportation efficiencies through tiered pickups and bell times and through streamlining and consolidating routes.

Students who ride the bus now wait at the bus stop with more of their fellow students, since school administrators have reduced the number of bus stops. Some schools in North Carolina changed to a three-tiered bell system, which allows one bus to service three schools. Last year St. Louis School District administrators saved $2.5 million by moving to a similar system.

Fuel prices last year caused some school administrators to decrease transportation services. Diesel fuel is down $1.50 from the August 2008 national average of $4.12. Although fuel is only 7 percent of the average district’s transportation budget, “this stuff adds up,” says Kyle Martin, vice president of TransPar Group, a student transportation consulting firm.

School administrators chafe at these cuts and are looking at transportation alternatives promoted by environmental groups as ways also to save money. The effort to reduce carbon emissions comes “at a time schools need us the most,” says Safe Routes to School (SRC) program director Wendi Kallins. One example is School Pool, a 50-school SRC program launching in October that will link Marin County, Calif., parents and students to their respective school’s walk, bike and carpool lists.

Some districts are looking for ways to make their bus systems more efficient. Fourteen Rhode Island districts have joined a mandatory statewide system for busing out-of-district students. By 2011-2012 the system will include students from almost all of the state’s districts who need to be bused to schools in other districts. The consolidation of bus routes for these students is expected to save districts $1.4 million this year alone.

Robin Leeds, industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association, says, “None of [these programs] is met with open arms by parents.” Indeed, parents in Cobb County, Ga., lobbied and reversed cuts in bus routes slated for 2009.

But most families accommodate cuts because they understand everyone is in a tough economy. The key is steady communication with parents and stressing the safety of students. For the first week of school, Jes?s Ch?vez, Round Rock (Texas) ISD superintendent, walked to school with a student worried about the safety of walking.