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Friday, April 11, 2014

Busing costs scrutinized amid school budget talks

BY SUZANNE PEREZ TOBIAS
The Wichita Eagle

Every morning and afternoon during the school year, 44 buses line up outside Mayberry Middle School, a cultural and fine arts magnet in west Wichita.

The buses can hold up to 72 students, but some carry only three or four.

The scene is similar at other Wichita schools, particularly those with magnet themes or special programs that attract students from across the city.

"Without transportation, you wouldn't have magnets," said Tim Seguine, principal at Mayberry. "Many of those who live farther away would not choose to go here anymore," and some neighborhood schools would see their enrollments spike, he said.

Wichita's practice of transporting magnet school students, along with policies regarding who else gets a bus ride and where buses stop, have come under fire recently as officials look to cut $30 million from next year's budget.

Wichita spends almost $25 million annually on buses, fuel and related expenses. Much of it — between 60 and 80 percent, calculated using a complex formula — is reimbursed by the state or federal government. Some funds are earmarked for students who attend schools more than 2 1/2 miles from home, including magnets.

"The biggest burden for schools right now is in the transportation arena," said Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner for learning services at the Kansas State Department of Education.

"When you're trying to cut the budget, you have to look at everything," he said. "And depending on the size of the district, buses and fuel can be huge items."

That's the case in Wichita, the state's largest district. More than 500 buses transport about 17,500 students — just under half the district's children — over a 160-square-mile area.

The district contracts with Ohio-based First Student, the nation's largest bus company, and school officials work with the company to develop and review routes.

When district employees were asked recently to offer ideas for potential budget cuts, many pointed to transportation.

"I have a student this year who is THE ONLY CHILD on his bus route!!!" wrote one elementary school teacher. "As a taxpayer, I find this disturbing. A daily taxicab is probably cheaper!"

Employees' comments, submitted anonymously through the district's website, were compiled and given to a budget advisory committee.

"Has anyone considered eliminating busing for magnet students outside their school's area?" wrote an elementary school administrator.

"As part of accepting placement in a magnet program ... parents could be required to sign a document agreeing that district transportation would not be provided."

School choice

Officials say magnet school transportation comprises only a portion of the district's overall transportation budget. Doing away with it or charging families a portion of the cost would create other problems and dilute the district's long-held commitment to schools of choice, said Superintendent John Allison.

School choice, he said, remains a critical part of the district's pledge to keep schools diverse after ending busing for integration. And state law requires districts to transport students who live more than 2 1/2 miles from their assigned school, whether it is a neighborhood school or magnet.

"When you begin to say that a child's ability to attend a certain school hinges on their ability to pay, you're limiting their access to those programs, which becomes problematic," Allison said.

Even so, the superintendent and school board pledged in January to review the district's transportation system, potentially reducing the number of buses and the cost associated with running them.

Some changes will be tweaks, such as altering start times at nine schools to consolidate bus routes, Allison said. Others could affect more families and be controversial, such as making students walk farther to bus stops.

"We get constant requests from parents who want a stop moved so they can see the stop from their doorstep," Allison said. Others complain about groups of students that gather at corners each morning to wait for the bus.

"Everybody wants something different. ... None of this is simple," Allison said. "Anything you do has implications, and we just want to minimize that impact as much as possible."

In January, board members approved a $40,000 contract with Education Logistics, a Montana-based consulting firm, to study the district's bus-routing system and policies. Allison said he expects findings by April, in time to propose cost- cutting measures for next school year.

Allison said "there are certainly cases" where large buses transport just a handful of children. Here's why: Fuller buses require longer routes with more stops, which could mean some children riding for more than an hour. It also could keep buses from going on to subsequent routes at other schools.

"It's a balancing act," said Neuenswander, the state deputy commissioner. "You try to get kids to school safely, limit their time on the bus and still be as efficient as possible. That's not easy."

Nancy Patterson, whose son and daughter attend Mayberry, says she is "trying to keep track of any changes, so we can make plans if we need to."

Her sixth-grade son and eighth-grade daughter board a bus about 6:35 a.m. for a 7-mile ride to school, Patterson said.

"It's helpful to get them on the bus so that my husband and I can get ready and make it to work on time," she said. The children's bus ride home at 2:25 p.m. is even more helpful, she said.

The family didn't choose Mayberry over Truesdell, their neighborhood school, for the bus ride, Patterson said. "But if I had to pick them up in the middle of the day, that would cause a major disruption with work schedules."

A 'huge challenge'

At a recent forum for school board candidates hosted by the Wichita Pachyderm Club, several candidates said they would consider transportation cuts, assuming state or federal law didn't prevent them. But they likely won't be popular or even feasible, several said.

"Families have seen these bus rides as almost a God-given right, and that can't be the case" in the future, said Sheril Logan, a former school administrator running for the board's at-large seat.

But in a district where more than 70 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, getting kids to school could be a challenge for many families, Logan said.

"You cannot educate a kid if they're not there," said Neuenswander. "Parents don't just let kids walk to school anymore for safety reasons, or maybe they live too far away.

"The sheer size of Wichita makes it a huge challenge," he said. "You try to do everything you can to make it convenient and efficient, but that all comes at a cost."

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