Illinois BOE Considers Ending Free Bus Service Amid Budget Crisis

Illinois students may soon be walking longer distances and paying school bus fees to get to and from class if state officials move forward with current proposals to save student transportation dollars.

The Illinois State Board of Education is mulling two proposals designed to drive down transportation costs for the state’s cash-strapped school districts, and legislation is expected next week. Proposed changes include charging school bus fees or ending the state mandate for free busing for students who live more than 1.5 miles from school or who face certain road hazards that prevent them from walking.

The ideas come in response to state cutbacks in recent years for transportation services. State funding for student transportation was slashed 42 percent in 2011 when compared to the previous year, and the state plans to keep that funding level flat.

In a recent Legislative Update, State Superintendent Christoper A. Koch stated that if Congress does nothing to stop sequestration, or automatic trigger cuts to all federal discretionary funding, it is estimated that education programs may be cut in 2013 alone by more than 9 percent, or $4 billion.

“I have spoken with several members of Congress and many feel sequestration is a very real possibility that will likely not be dealt with until after the presidential election. I will be working with our Congressional delegation so that they understand the impact to our schools,” wrote Koch.

A bipartisan deficit-reduction supercommittee failed to develop a plan in late 2011 for lowering the federal budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, triggering plans for automatic cuts to all discretionary funding, known as sequestration, Koch explained.

Currently, the state reimburses school districts at a fixed percentage of their transportation costs. A new proposal means the state would determine the average transportation costs for schools statewide and only reimburse them up to that amount.

Under this plan, districts that spend more than the average would be forced to find ways to cut costs, potentially eliminating free school bus transportation for students and charging for this service. Further changes could expand the 1.5-mile distance requirement for eligibility to two or more miles and/or increase walking distances to school bus stops.

“I have heard of both proposals, the efficiency proposal by mile or by student and the pay per ride proposal. The pay-per-ride idea is getting the most attention,” said Don West, president of the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation and transportation coordinator for Rockford Public Schools. “Our association feels that charging parents is not the right way to go.”

West argued that it would be unfair to levy bus fees or raise taxes on the state’s struggling families. The proposal also states that schools could not charge families that are on free- and reduced-lunch programs. In his district alone, West said that is 79 percent of the population. So his question is: What fee would districts have to charge to cover the 79 percent that they couldn’t charge?

“Districts in the state have responded to the dramatic decrease the past three years by reducing transportation and making central bus stops at the 1.5-mile distance. Some districts have even eliminated their transportation professionals and left transportation in the hands of a principal,” he said, adding that IAPT members have been in contact with each other to see what different districts are doing to save money.

Rural districts in the state have already siphoned money from education budgets to cover the cost of mandated bus service. In November rural districts learned they would lose 40 percent of their transportation dollars after the governor’s midyear “trigger” cuts eliminated nearly $90 million in funding for student transportation.

“At this point, we really don’t know what legislators are going to do,” West continued. “As transportation professionals, we do what we can to reduce costs as much as possible and try to plan the next year on a guess of what is going to happen.”