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Guest Column: Yellow school bus may become an endangered species in Illinois

April 11, 2012

By Brent Clark, Ph. D.
Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators

Remember when we walked 3 miles to school every day, uphill both ways through snow, sleet, hail and torrential rain? School children in Illinois may soon return to those good old days. The bad news is we no longer live in Leave It to Beaver times, and safety is the overarching reason for public schools to continue providing bus transportation for students.

The yellow school bus may become an endangered species in Illinois, considering the 42 percent cut to state funding for public schools transportation in the past three years and the ominous clouds forming over the state’s education budget for next year. No one can argue with the emphasis on maintaining funding for the classroom, but the ability to safely transport children to school remains a basic fundamental of educating students.

From a purely political standpoint, cuts to school transportation clearly have far less impact in Chicago than they do downstate, where many school districts cover more than 100 square miles. Even in the state’s largest cities, the path to school often includes railroad crossings or busy highways, not to mention child predators.

There are those who believe it’s the responsibility of parents to get their kids to and from school. Setting aside the fact that many families depend on both parents working full time, there are logistical factors that make parents dropping their children at the school door virtually impossible in many school districts.

Most schools were not designed for hundreds of vehicles dropping off children; most were designed with lanes for relatively few buses. Factor just 30 seconds for a parent to pull up, say goodbye and drop off their children. How long would that process take for just 100 cars? 200? 300? Also consider the safety concerns with that much traffic while children are arriving or departing school.

From an overall economic perspective, the cost of bus drivers, fuel and insurance is less than the fuel cost for hundreds of vehicles making that daily trip.

The notion that local districts should shoulder more of the transportation costs ignores the fact that local taxpayers already pay a portion of the transportation bill. The state already has cut General State Aid to schools, and leaders in the House and Senate are talking about shifting the state’s portion of pension costs for teachers to local districts. Illinois already ranks among the nation’s highest in local school funding and among the lowest in state funding for public education.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has proposed changing the formula for transportation from the current reimbursement formula to an “efficiency” formula based on either per-student or per-mile funding. Recognizing that this is an attempt by ISBE to retain at least some funding for transportation in the current political and economical atmosphere, this would be a paradigm shift in funding that would result in “winners” and “losers” among school districts. Still, it is something that should be carefully considered if it rewards efficiency.

The ISBE proposal also allows for school districts to charge parents a fee to transport their children, and ISBE data indicates the cost for transporting one child for a year averages about $500. Realistically, what school board would want to assess such a fee on parents who already pay school taxes? Districts could not even assess the fee on families whose students are enrolled in the free-and-reduced lunch program, a growing population in many districts.

Certainly, districts should look at all feasible options to lower costs — and most districts have been involved for years in cost-cutting initiatives like bid purchasing, contract bargaining and shopping for the lowest insurance costs. Districts that have not already done so may need to look at more of a mass transit business model. For example, door-to-door service may need to be replaced by establishing bus stops at strategic locations. In some districts, that could result in fewer buses, fewer miles and fewer drivers.

There was a recent story about a school district in Missouri (Bayless School District near St. Louis) that eliminated its bus transportation two years ago, only to see 150 students move to neighboring districts that provide bus transportation. The district actually ended up losing more money in state aid than the bus transportation cost. The story underscores how important school transportation is to parents.

The yellow school bus long has been a fundamental, vital part of our public education system. It is not a luxurious benefit for children or parents. It remains the safest, most efficient way to transport our children to school.

Brent Clark is the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, a statewide association of more than 1,700 members. Clark was a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent at Belleville prior to becoming the head of the IASA.

From the April 11-17, 2012, issue

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