If you grew up in rural America, you probably rode a school bus to school every day. If a child lives in the country or farther away from the school, the only reasonable way to get there is to ride a yellow school bus. Someone has to pay for that though and school districts, especially in rural America, are struggling to keep up the costs of bussing students. Buying, updating, maintaining, gassing a fleet plus providing funds for drivers and their training strains rural school districts all over the U.S.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the school year 2010-11 (last time assessed) 57% of all operating regular school districts were located in rural areas, 20% in suburbia, 18 percent in towns and only 5 percent in cities. One-quarter of all public school students were enrolled in rural schools. Transporting students is big business but for small rural districts, the dance to transport students, maintain efficiency and obtain much needed state funding can be problematic.
In Wisconsin for example, the Department of Public Instruction created a program in the 2013-15 budget cycle called the High Cost Transportation Aid program which distributes funds to rural districts to offset their transportation costs. The 2015-17 state budget increased the allocation from $5 to $7.5 million to help out districts.
This school year, 128 districts will share in the $7.5 million dollars of the High Cost Transportation Aid program. That’s great news for the districts that received the money but there are nearly 200 districts who did not receive any additional aid.
Statewide average for transportation costs per student is Wisconsin is nearly $419.00 per year. For school districts eligible for transportation aid, they must have 50 students or fewer per square mile and their transportation costs must by 150% or more of the statewide average ($628.50)
Rhinelander, WI did not receive any funding this time around even though they have only 6 students per square mile but do not spend enough money per child to make the cut. Rhinelander School District Superintendent Kelli Jacobi thinks the formula should also take into account the district’s poverty rate. Rhinelander’s median income is $30,000 but the district has high property rates due to the numerous vacation homes and resorts. This means, Rhinelander generally gets less in state aid for schools and must balance the rest from taxpayers.
An even smaller school district in the Spring Green area (River Valley School District) did not receive the grant either. Business Manager for the district, Jon Novak thinks the state should adjust the formula to remove the amount of money a district spends. River Valley has fewer than five students per square mile but according to Novak, River Valley School District was able to hold down its transportation costs by being more efficient. River Valley transports 87% of the student body covering a geographical location of 296 square miles.
Why does this matter to the everyday motorist? As transportation funds grow scarce, school districts will look for more creative ways to find funds to help leverage their transportation costs. School bus cameras for one, as well as extending school zone areas and making school zone speed limits 24/7/365. This brings in more revenue to help offset these costs.
The National Motorists Association applauds those rural districts who work each year to improve the efficiency of their transportation fleet, but also don’t feel that a school district should be penalized for doing so.
Motorists need to continue to advocate wherever they might live to make sure that school bus cameras, extension of school zone areas and extension of school zone hours don’t become entrenched as a way for school districts or cities to make money.