Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement of a $248 million cut in school transportation funds has triggered a fierce response from some of the state’s largest urban school districts as well as smaller rural ones. What is far less clear is how many districts will actually terminate bus routes this year.
Schools are mandated by federal law to provide transportation for special education students if called for in their individual education plans. And if students can’t get to school, districts would lose state funds they would have received based on their “average daily attendance,” which in turn would compound their losses.
On average, the state has traditionally paid about 40 percent of a district’s transportation costs. The rest has had to come from the district itself.
The most vociferous protest came swiftly from Los Angeles Unified, which filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brown and other state officials in Los Angeles Superior Court yesterday, less than a day after Brown’s announcement.
Schools were spared some of the worst “trigger cuts” many had feared. But Los Angeles Unified stands to lose $38 million if the transportation cuts go into effect, far more than any other district. The impact of the loss of those funds, the lawsuit contends, would be “catastrophic.”
“We stand with our students to say enough is enough,” Los Angeles Superintendent of Schools John Deasy declared. “LAUSD cannot withstand further budget cuts without adversely impacting the educational benefits offered to its students.”
Among other arguments, the lawsuit contends that unlike other districts LAUSD is “constitutionally mandated” as the result of a 1981 court-ordered voluntary desegregation plan to provide transportation to 35,000 students attending district magnet schools. “For decades, the state has reimbursed LAUSD for its court-ordered desegregation expenses,” the lawsuit noted.
In addition, the district is mandated by state and federal law to provide transportation to another 13,000 special education students. The district contends that:
Unless the State is enjoined from implementing the mid-year budget cuts, the District and its students will suffer irreparable harm in violation of the California Constitution.
In making the announcement of the cut, Gov. Brown urged districts to pay for transportation out of their reserves. It’s likely that many districts will do so, even though in many cases their reserves are leaner than they were before the state’s fiscal implosion.
In a strongly worded Dec. 12 letter, for example, an official from Tulare Joint Union High School District, with an enrollment more than 100 times smaller than LAUSD, wrote to Gov. Brown and Ana Matosantos, his finance director, explaining how the district has to transport 900 out of its 5,600 students some 1,200 miles each day across 300 square miles in its vast Central Valley district.
The letter argued that cuts in transportation funding would “force small children to walk miles to school in horrible weather,” lead to some parents dropping off children at school early and leaving them unattended, or require mass layoffs of bus drivers, adding to the area’s already sky-high unemployment rate.
However, just two days after sending the letter, Tulare Joint Union High’s Superintendent Sarah Koligian told EdSource that her district would avoid eliminating bus routes by dipping into its reserves to cover the $300,000 it will lose from the state. But she pointed out that was an unsustainable strategy over the long term, especially coming on top of several years of relentless budget cutting in her district.
Out of the district’s total transportation costs of $1.4 million, it is already paying $800,000 out of its own funds, she said. As a result of the pending cut, it will have to cover $1.1 million of the total costs this year, further “encroaching” on the district’s general fund, as she put it.
Stephen Rhoads, legislative advocate for the School Transportation Coalition, a coalition of several districts, said districts have already had to make cuts in their school route offerings as a result of several years of relentless budget cutting, and that it will be hard for districts to make further reductions, especially in the middle of the school year.
He said that the cuts would fall hardest on districts serving low-income students who are dependent on school transportation, or in rural areas where students don’t live anywhere near their schools. “You’re taking money away from districts where parents don’t have a Lexus to drive their kids to school,” he said. The disproportionate impact on the poor was “unfair,” he added.
And even if schools were able to preserve their bus routes, the impact on districts would still be significant. “Cuts will have to be made someplace,” he said. “You either have to cut transportation, take it out of reserves or take it out of the classroom.”
With its lawsuit filed, Los Angeles Unified officials yesterday declined to state whether the district would dip into its reserve to compensate for the looming loss of transportation dollars, or find some other ways to pay for them. But the implication was that it would. “The superintendent and board are going to look at all options to avoid the disruption of students during the middle of the school year,” a spokesperson said.