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Transporting Private School Students Making Sense Amid Rising Bus Operating Costs PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laura Blodgett   
Sunday, 01 June 2008 00:00

Like many issues in school transportation, enabling private school students to hitch a ride on a public school bus is like an onion that reveals more layers with every peel.

Public vs. private used to be an argument confined to the football field or basketball gym. But a growing number of states now have the ability to determine if they want to transport private school students. To date, 28 have some form of the “Share the Ride” concept allowing public school boards to enter into contracts with non-public schools.

One of those states is Pennsylvania. It has mandated since 1973 that if a public school district provides student transportation it must also provide transportation for private school students who live within 10-mile radius of each school district’s boundaries.

Wayne Johnston, president of the Pupil Transportation Association of Pennsylvania, came from the trucking industry and looked at students as ”packages” to determine how to set up the routes.

“In Springfield, I arranged for every bus to stop at the public high school for a transfer, and then there are buses that go to the three private parochial schools in town,” he says.

When he put the plan together back in 1985, everyone told him that the public would rebel. But that outcry never materialized.

“For the past 23 years, my secretary and I are both at the high school during the first week of school and everything runs smoothly,” Johnston adds.

With the increase in fuel costs, his efforts to collect the kids and take them to a central location to more efficiently transport them on one or two vehicles rather than five or six of them make a lot of sense.

“I do get phone calls from parents who are upset that elementary school children are riding with seniors from public high school, but we are mandated to provide transportation, not separate transportation,” he says.

Luckily, the law is clearly spelled out, which solves a lot of arguments.

“We’re not a taxi service; there’s no meter on the yellow school bus. Sometimes the public wants to take advantage of what is available,” adds Johnston.

Issues and Controversies
It seems there are always issues that arise when implementing changes to a system, ranging from the distance required to pick up students to the religious beliefs held by some of the private schools.

In Madison, Wis., an issue arose last fall when it was determined that the cost of bussing private school students would exceed one and a half times the parent contract rate.

“By law, when it becomes more expensive to provide a yellow bus, the school district is supposed to reimburse parents instead for getting their children to school themselves,” explains Renee Bremer, director of transportation for the Madison School District.

The school district worked closely with the local Catholic Diocese last summer and was in the process of notifying parents when the deadline to implement it for the school year was missed. The school district had to continue with yellow bus service to those students for the 2007-2008 school year.

Bremer says she expected controversy at a recent school board meeting held to determine next year’s plan. Private school parents who qualified in the past for yellow bus service but chose not to use it are not entitled to reimbursement. The flip side is that, should schools need to change bell times as a means to accommodate bus service at a lower cost, those private school students will be affected.

“We can change the bell time by three minutes, and you would think the world came to an end,” she explains.

However, the board of education did recently pass the proposal for busing to remain in place for Catholic schools based on the bell time modifications.

“The board was very pleased that we all worked well together and came up this compromise,” adds Bremer. “There was no public appearance.”

Taxpayers Unite
The main argument for providing transportation to private school students is that parents pay property taxes and are entitled to the use of public services. In Norfolk, Va., a state legislator is currently requesting that the local school board experiment with transporting private school students.

Dr. Frank Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, sees the property tax argument differently than some.

“People who live in gated communities do not have fire, police protection or road repair. That’s the whole purpose of private subdivisions and private schools. You can’t have it both ways.”

The issue is cost.

“Now the buses have to stop for students where they didn’t make stops before — tires wear out sooner, more [fuel] is used, you have to pay bus drivers for extra hours, you’ve got to pay extra annual premiums on insurance, buses will need to be replaced more frequently and so on. It doesn’t cost the same, it costs more. It’s not a free ride.”

Barham suggests that the Norfolk School Board should sit down with the private schools to determine what fee parents should be charged to cover the additional costs.

John Langlois and Amy Kallenbach, both volunteers of Share the Ride in Virginia, say that anything the state can do to advance the safety of children is the acceptable action. Langlois adds that the resurgence of concern for the environment and a desire for less cars on the road during heavy traffic periods are other good reasons to share transportation services.

“I say let’s be partners in the system,” says Langlois, who has been working to implement the Share the Ride program in Virginia for the past 10 years. “Here’s a great example where public schools do something very well — transportation — and we’re just asking to be part of that as neighbors.”

He notes that private school children help the school system in many ways. For example, non-public school children are counted in the annual public school census, which drives how much money will be budgeted for the proceeding year.

“And in communities that have shared resources, private school parents are more positive about funding public school referendums,” he adds. “We are all taxpayers who are underwriting the public school system even though we may not be participants.”

The Norfolk School District recently agreed to conduct a joint study on the feasibility of providing transportation to private school children tentatively due to be completed mid-summer.

“We’re very excited,” says Langlois. “This will be the first city in our state to make a study, and we are very encouraged by them accommodating us.”

Blodgett, a regular contributor to STN, is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Reprinted from the June 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

Last Updated on Thursday, 07 January 2010 12:10