Budget update: transportation

At tonight’s Budget & Business Services Committee, we got an update on the cost of busing. Some background: in June 2008, the Board passed a resolution asking the Superintendent to find $1 million in cuts to general education transportation.  Last December, the staff returned with three possible options. However, at the first meeting in January 2009, the Board decided we should make transportation cuts in concert with implementing our new student assignment system.

That was then. Now we know that the new student assignment system won’t be in place until January 2011 at the earliest, (when students will begin to enroll for the 2011-12 school year). In addition, the state’s budget situation and the district’s budget outlook have worsened.

Here are the cost breakdowns given to the committee this evening:

  • General education transportation – $5.6 million for 50 buses, transporting 4,400 students on 118 morning routes and 148 afternoon routes. The vast majority of those routes serve elementary schools — 61 in all. An additional 7 middle schools and 6 high schools are also served by bus routes.
  • Special education transportation – $15.8 million for 134 buses, transporting 1,590 special education students to and from their homes, on routes serving 57 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, 12 high schools, 18 child development centers, and 8 non-public schools. The total number of trips, morning and afternoon combined, comes to 725. In addition, 175 additional students are transported to and from therapy appointments according to services described in their IEPs.

I want to make two points about these numbers:

  • First, the special ed transportation cost figure is nothing short of staggering. According to Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh, staff research indicates that we are spending four to five times more than other districts to transport students with disabilities.  Why is our system so inefficient? I am convinced it’s because we have for too long pursued a very rigid program model (many more thoughts on that here) that virtually ensures that students will have to be bused long distances to receive appropriate services. I am hopeful that our planned review of our special education programs will help us increase efficiency and improve services, but I am worried it can’t happen soon enough. The waste is sickening.
  • Second, anyone who reads this post must understand that our general ed transportation costs are not frivolous “social engineering.” It’s true that our general education transportation system is inefficient, but that’s because it hasn’t been re-thought in years. Most of the current bus routes to elementary schools are relics of various desegregation plans attempted over the years. And I can virtually guarantee that there will be some transportation routes under whatever student assignment plan we ultimately adopt – because transportation is a great strategy to encourage families to try a school they would otherwise shun. Galileo High School’s bus is a case in point:  in 2004, after protests from Chinese-American parents (led by disgraced former Supervisor Ed Jew) in the Richmond and Sunset whose children were assigned to Galileo, the district added the bus as a sweetener.  (Commissioner Wynns reminded me tonight that the bus was supposed to be a one-year deal, but no one ever wanted to brave the wrath of parents to end it, so the bus continues.)  Six years later, Galileo is thriving and attracts many west side parents, and I’m willing to bet that bus or no bus, the school will remain popular.

Those two points made, it’s clear we need to take another look at transportation, sooner rather than later. Though the committee couldn’t make a formal recommendation on an informational item, it seems obvious that we no longer have the luxury of waiting for student assignment to be done before reconfiguring our busing strategy.

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