News

California misses the school bus

California’s revised May budget includes billions the state owes to the
education system. But a bipartisan group of legislators is asking the state
to take on another very expensive problem–actually getting kids to school.

While busing has sometimes been typecast as a Democratic issue, California
Republicans have been some of the main advocates for busing recently.
Assemblyman John J. Benoit, R-Palm Desert, joined with Rudy Bermudez,
D-Norwalk, for AB 1786, which calls for great equality in the amount of
money that the state gives to different school districts for school-busing
programs.

Two other Republican assemblymen–David Cogdill, R-Modesto, and Bob Huff,
R-Diamond Bar–signed on as sponsors. Senate Republicans have gotten into the
act as well. Last year, Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno, wrote SB 698,
which would have provided money to replace many of California’s older school
buses.

These efforts reflect both the growing suburbanization of California and the
sorry condition of the state’s school-bus fleet. Many of the GOP legislators
who have gotten involved in the issue represent suburban or rural areas that
have a lower-than-average percentage of their busing costs reimbursed by the
state.

“There are a fair number of Republican districts that are fast-growing,”
said David Duran, Capitol director for Benoit.

According to data prepared by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) in
March, the state covered an average of 45 percent of district busing costs
in 2003-04, the last year of available data.

State-busing funding to districts is calculated using a formula that has
been in place for many years, said Department of Education consultant Wendy
McCaskill. Each year’s funding is based on either the allotment or actual
cost of the previous year, plus a small cost-of-living increase.
“It is not right to say that people are being overfunded,” she said.

The LAO analysis found that it would cost the state another $95 million
annually to bring all the districts with lower funding up to the 45 percent
level. At 50 percent, the cost would be $130 million; 75 percent would
demand $368 million. McCaskill said these figures appear to be correct.

One district that would see increased funding under an equalization plan is
Sacramento’s Natomas Unified. This fast-growing district was reimbursed only
$142,967 of $1,473,211 in 2003-04. The situation has only gotten worse, said
John Christ, assistant superintendent of business at Natomas Unified; the
district’s busing costs have grown to $1.8 million in the current school
year.

“It was a very small district when the base rate was set 20 years ago,”
Christ said. “A lot of districts have been left behind.”

The current formula has been “frozen in time” since California voters passed
Proposition 13 in 1978, said Steve Rhoads, legislative advocate School
Transportation Coalition. Rhoads said there are two main types of districts
that have been shortchanged by the business-reimbursement formula:
fast-growing suburban districts and poorer districts, both urban and rural,
that must bus a large proportion of their students.

This diversity helps explain the bipartisan support for bus funding, he
said. He also said that California should look at a solution tried in North
Carolina, which rewards districts for operating their bus fleets
efficiently.

Under current law, districts can receive only a small increase each year. AB
1786 would instruct the superintendent of public instruction to modify the
formula to distribute “funding on a more equitable basis.” The language is
similar to a 2005 bill sponsored by Benoit, AB 1191, that stalled out in the
Assembly Appropriations Committee.

AB 1786 also currently is held up in the Appropriations, but is due for a
vote on May 25. SB 698 also is stalled out. Given tight state budgets, Duran
said, it has been hard to come up with support for spending more on busing.
Another issue is the advanced age of California’s school buses. According to
data prepared by the School Transportation Coalition, California has nearly
half of the country’s pre-1977 buses.

These older buses also do not have the safety features of newer buses.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of California’s 15,000 buses were built before
1987 and do not have the pollution controls established that year when the
federal government called on states to abide by federal pollution standards.
A high percentage of these buses operate in the polluted San Joaquin Valley,
Rhoads said.

“If you’re talking about pre-1977 school buses, this state should be ashamed
to have them, period,” Rhoads said. “We should be replacing pre-1987 school
buses.”

In the last decade, the state’s K-12 student body has increased 22 percent,
while the number of buses grew only 4 percent. Reformers claim this is on
reason why only 14 percent of California students ride buses, the lowest
percentage in the country.

The Legislature did provide $49.5 million for school-bus replacement between
2000 and 2002. Voters approved Proposition 40 in 2002, providing another
$9.5 million over two years; this was used to purchase 76 new buses.

But attempts to apply larger amounts to busing have generally gone down,
often to vetoes. The most notable effort was SB 1068, sponsored by Sen.
Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, in 2001. It would have provided an immediate
$200 million in bond money for bus replacement, followed by another $50
million a year. It was vetoed by former-Gov. Gray Davis.

But help may be on the way. There is $200 million in the transportation
portion of the bond to replace school buses, plus another $25 million in the
Air Resources Board budget. However, Rhoads said it would take at least $500
million a year in ongoing spending to fix the problems with the state’s
school buses–money that is unlikely to come anytime soon.


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