School districts looking to cut costs face unpopular choices over bus service
But several school districts in Washtenaw County are looking to change or reduce bus service in order to save money in the coming school year. And none more so than Ann Arbor Public Schools, which is considering eliminating bus service for high schoolers.
That possibility has not created a huge outcry in a district where about two-thirds of the high school students who are eligible to ride the bus don’t. But it has raised questions about the burden it would put on some families - and about the possibility of losing students to other districts that aren’t considering such dramatic cuts in bus service.
Martine Perreault, chairwoman of the Ann Arbor Parent Teacher Organization Council, told school board members on Friday that the district would be "cutting off our nose to spite our face" if it stopped offering bus service at the high school level.
"We are a very large geographic district and high schoolers living in the outlying areas may choose to go to other districts that are very willing to run over a bus and pick them up," she said.
Ypsilanti Public Schools and Saline Area Schools have both tossed around the idea of cutting high school transportation or cutting transportation services in certain areas of town. However, both districts ultimately decided the savings were not worth that drastic step.
Instead, both are looking at more modest changes to bus service that could save anywhere from $85,000 to $250,000.
David Arsen, professor of educational administration and policy in Michigan State University’s College of Education, said the plans for transportation reductions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline may save the school districts money but are ultimately pushing the costs onto parents instead of the schools.
“Basically, districts are shifting the cost of transportation services from the district budget to families who have to provide transportation themselves,” Arsen said. “It’s a pure form of privatization.”
Eliminating high school transportation and after-school shuttles is expected to save Ann Arbor schools about $1.482 million. District spokesperson Liz Margolis said she’s heard a few complaints about the proposed cut, but not nearly as many as the principal-sharing proposal that was taken off the table by the Ann Arbor school board last month.
There is the possibility that the district could end up getting enough money from the state to avoid cutting high school transportation. In the budget deal passed by the state Legislature last week, school districts will receive a new $300 per pupil cut and have a $170 per pupil cut not restored but could have up to $100 per pupil restored by meeting certain state standards for best practices. In Ann Arbor, that would mean about $1.6 million.
Major cuts to transportation are something smaller county school districts — in terms of student population — have put off because of the larger geographic areas they need to cover and the dependence of their students on school buses.
Bryan Girbach, superintendent of Milan Area Schools, said the district’s budget doesn’t currently have any drastic cuts or changes to transportation. However, district officials will be going into negotiations with their bus drivers union, as it does with all of its union groups, in the future.
Girbach said his major concern when cutting transportation is the effects it can have on student achievement.
“If students can’t get to school and absenteeism increases, that increases the concern about student achievement,” he said.
While he doesn’t know what the next few years may hold for the district’s budget, Girbach said transportation probably won’t be something district officials will be looking at in the near future.
“I don’t see that as one of the top items to look at for budgetary savings,” he said. “Maybe we’ll look at walking distances to make some minor changes and achieve some minor changes but I don’t see any full-blown cuts to transportation.”
Much of the consternation around the cut of high school busing in Ann Arbor focuses on whether or not some students would be able to get to school without district bus service.
Michele Machiele, president of the Huron Parent Teacher Support Organization, said most of the concern she’s heard about the proposed plan for high school transportation is about equity issues.
She said many parents she’s spoken to have the means to get their kids to school on their own but are worried about the families that don’t.
“We do look out for each other and yeah, it’s tough and getting tougher, but we don’t really want to make it harder for kids who are already having a hard time getting (to school),” she said. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t have hurdles to get there.”
The three comprehensive high schools in Ann Arbor already charge students who drive to school for a parking space. To park in the reserved lot at Huron High School, the cost is $60 per car and general parking is $30, with a limited number of spaces available for juniors. A parking space for the school year at Pioneer High School is $40 and the cost is $30 at Skyline High School.
The Community High School parking lot is owned by the city of Ann Arbor and is returned to public use after school lets out in the summer.
Machiele said she understood why the cuts were being considered and said parents at Huron will adjust. She said she hoped the board would look hard at other cuts to fill the budget deficit, and would get the proposed high school transportation cut off the table.
“Because the economy is the way it is, all of us are determined to live within our means and we’re all making sacrifices to keep things that are important to us,” she said. “The culture at Huron is we’ll take our medicine, we’re grown ups and we see there are cuts to be made. It’s not my favorite cut. There are some other things that could be looked at.”
Ypsilanti school officials are considering modifying bus routes and protocols, such as revamping routes and ending a tradition of transporting in-district school of choice students from their homes to school. Instead, students will be required to get to the nearest school building, where they will then be picked up and transported to their school.
Chief Financial Officer David Houle said the modifications to transportation would save the district about $250,000 if included in the final budget. He said transporting in-district school of choice students from home to schools potentially across the district was a service set up by past school boards meant to please everyone.
Ultimately, it cost the district thousands of dollars, Houle said.
“Previous boards of education wanted to provide service to answer any parent’s request,” he said. “So they ended up having the district in a situation where we’re driving from one end to the other. In this economy and funding situation, we had to look at that and see if it made any sense and there are more efficient ways to do it than that.”
Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are both a part of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District’s busing consortium, along with Willow Run Community Schools. Ypsilanti parents had numerous complaints about the new consortium during the beginning of the school year, but the complaints have diminished in recent months, at least publicly.
The school board voted to spend up to $180,000 on bus services from Trinity Transportation Inc. in November to help ease strain on the busing system.
Houle said the district’s budget advisory task force, made up of about 20 community members, had floated the idea of cutting high school busing earlier this year. He said there hasn’t been any momentum behind the idea to this point.
“I think it’s unlikely we’re moving in that direction this fall,” he said. “But it’s something that every school district has to take into consideration.”
WISD transportation director Tom Moore said no bus drivers are expected to lose their jobs because of the busing changes. He said his department is expecting to hire new bus drivers for the fall.
In Saline, district officials listed a number of possible cuts to transportation at the district’s first budget forum in April and heard the community response loud and clear.
Superintendent Scot Graden included privatizing transportation, eliminating transportation, eliminating in-town busing or reducing the number of stops and eliminating transportation for athletics among the possible budget cuts, but all were eventually ruled out.
However, the district does have the elimination of midday busing in its proposed budget, Graden said. The district would not provide buses home for morning kindergartners or provide a ride to school for afternoon kindergartners.
Graden said the district currently requires a parent to be home when a kindergarten student is being dropped off or picked up, so the availability of those parents is already high during the day. The move is expected to save about $85,000, Graden said.
“It’s not been decided yet; there are conversations at the board level of whether it’s worth the savings,” Graden said. “That’s the only thing left on the table (as far as transportation).”
Saline schools are currently attempting to fill a budget deficit of about $6 million for the coming school year.
The feedback the district has received was overwhelmingly against cutting transportation, Graden said. He said district officials came to the conclusion that potential reductions in bus service would harm classroom learning because of the increased time it would take students to get to school.
“Getting kids to school on time would provide a significant burden from our standpoint,” he said. “We’re making sure we’re not hurting the classroom. If kids can’t get to school, they can’t learn, and we need to consider that when handling our transportation.”