Lawmakers call for more school bus money

Lawmakers call for more school bus money

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the correct number of Assembly members -- 20 total -- who signed a letter requesting a budget allocation for school transportation.

(Calif.) A bi-partisan group of Assembly lawmakers is pushing for a budget allocation this year of nearly $150 million to reimburse public education agencies for costs of transporting students to and from school.

The money would be used to cover the first year costs of SB 191, a bill  pending in the state Senate that updates the state’s school transportation program by increasing payments to districts over a seven-year period.

“The Home-to-School Transportation program has long been inequitable and in need of improvement,” Assemblyman Rudy Salas, Jr. wrote in a May 12 letter – signed by 19 of his colleagues – to Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance chair Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

“The funding distribution is so uneven that some school districts see less than 10 percent reimbursement, while others receive over 80 percent. This funding deficit is an unequal burden that hits rural and growing school districts hardest,” the letter said.

Huge inequities in the transportation funding program were laid bare during the 2011-12 school year when the state, facing massive budget shortfalls, included $248 million in K-12 transportation funding on its list of cuts to education. Many districts were forced to reduce or consolidate bus routes, leaving students with significantly longer ride times or to find other ways to school.

Because of cost and equity issues, home-to-school transportation was one of the few specialty or “categorical” programs not rolled into Gov. Jerry Brown’s restructured education finance system known as the Local Control Funding Formula, enacted in 2013. Under LCFF, the state eliminated almost all categorical programs and instead pays districts a lump sum based on student attendance, with extra funding levels for large populations of disadvantaged students.

The 2014 state budget included a separate funding allocation of $496 million for school transportation but districts spent more than $1.4 billion transporting students, according to a report issued last year by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

On average, the state pays districts 35 percent of their transportation costs but because reimbursement rates have been frozen since 1982, some districts receive as much as 80 percent of costs while others receive less than 10 percent.

New programs established after that time are not reimbursed at all, and funding has not kept pace for districts that have seen significant growth in that 33-year period. This funding deficit, according to a Senate analysis of the bill, “is an unequal burden that hits rural and growing school districts much harder than more densely populated and flat enrollment school districts.”

SB 191, by Democratic Sen. Marty Block of San Diego, would raise reimbursement rates for the most severely underfunded of California’s school districts to 50 percent over the seven-year period, as well as provide an annual cost-of-living adjustment for transportation funding for all school districts.

As written, SB 191 will move all districts to 41 percent in 2015-16 at a cost of just over $147 million. According to a legislative analysis of the bill, allocations would increase annually to approximately $250 million to $270 million by 2021-22.

“SB 191 does not create a new program, nor does it manipulate Proposition  98. School transportation is an existing, inequitably and inadequately funded program,” Michael Hulsizer, head of legislative affairs in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, said in an email to Cabinet Report.

Supporters of the bill say now is the time to address this long-simmering issue, especially in light of the fact that schools will be receiving some $6 billion – $2.1 billion more than was proposed in January – in LCFF funding.

“Re-directing $147 million from over $6 billion in new LCFF funding is relatively insignificant to school districts; but will go a long way toward addressing this one last outstanding inequity in school funding,” Hulsizer said. more