State education officials propose changes to bus transportation
by Michele Longoworth, Planet Reporter
May 10, 2012 | 892 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Could school buses become a thing of the past? Officials with both of Massac County’s school districts say it’s too early to tell.        — Planet photo by Michele Longworth
Could school buses become a thing of the past? Officials with both of Massac County’s school districts say it’s too early to tell. — Planet photo by Michele Longworth
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Illinois education officials are working on a potential overhaul of the school bus laws, which are in place to help local districts deal with the loss in state funding.

"We're in the process of drafting something," said Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

What is being tossed around is allowing Illinois school districts to charge students to ride the bus, even though a final proposal has not been submitted to the Illinois General Assembly.

Vanover explained school transportation grants that districts receive from the state have been down for two years and appear to be headed in that direction beginning on July 1 when the state begins its fiscal year.

School districts in Illinois have asked for more than $530 in reimbursements, but the state has only earmarked $205.8 million for bus expenses.

Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, recently stated in a column concerning the transportation proposal to charge families: "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 the next year."

According to Clark, 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. He states that even in the state's largest cities, the path to school often includes railroad crossings or busy highways, not to mention child predators.

"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," said Clark. “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."

Although nothing is set in stone, Massac Unit One Superintendent William Hatfield explained there are two proposals being discussed. He said Unit One would not be adversely affected by either plan.

Hatfield went on to say he does not expect any changes in Unit One's school district over the next two years. He also points that with either plan, one of the difficulties is the unpredictability of the fuel prices.

According to Hatfield, half of the Unit One school district is comprised of free and reduced lunches. He points out those students would not have to pay. Hatfield went on to say if families had to pay for bus transportation, there would likely be a good number of students who would miss school and thinks truancy would go up.

Joppa-Maple Grove Superintendent Steve Ptacek has been keeping up to date on several school finance issues.

“At this time, it is far too early to state how we would address the loss of transportation funds," Ptacek said. "We have already lost over $50,000 in transportation funding from fiscal year 2010. We are concerned with the possibility of losing another $70,000 in fiscal year 2013. If we do lose the funds, we will have to analyze all of our options.”

According to Ptacek, as Joppa-Maple Grove enters next year's budgeting phase with the possibility of losing transportation funding, facing an increase in teacher pension payments and having state aid payments cut even more than last year, “it is an extremely tenuous time for schools," he said.

According to Vandover, school districts could possibly charge or not provide busing at all.

"Another option could extend the mileage threshold for free transportation beyond the current 1.5-mile radius of a school," said Vandover.

"This is all preliminary," he cautioned.
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