To fee or not to fee?

Thomas McMahon
Posted on September 20, 2010

Bad headline aside, the question of whether to charge for school bus service has been generating a lot of contention recently.

As we report here, two Indiana districts dropped their bus rider fees after state Attorney General Gregory Zoeller deemed such fees "unconstitutional."

"The legislature has identified transportation of school children as a part of what would constitute a uniform system of public education in Indiana," Zoeller wrote in an opinion piece. School districts do not have "the specific authority to assess, charge, or collect a school bus rider fee from the students," he added.

Franklin Township Community School Corp. had planned to start charging $75 per student for riding the bus. Lake Central School Corp. had been charging $10 per student for the past two years. Following the release of Zoeller's opinion, both districts rescinded their fees.

Here are some other recent developments on the fee front:

• At Lodi (Calif.) Unified School District, a large budget deficit led to a plan to charge $360 per student to ride the school bus for a year.

But based on input from within the district and the public — as well as the fact that only one bus pass had been bought — the superintendent decided to postpone the fee program. The board of education will revisit the idea later in the year to possibly try it again for the 2011-12 school year.

For now, the district opted to consolidate routes by picking students up at designated hubs instead of their homes. The hub system is expected to save more than $550,000 per year.

• In Hinsdale, Ill., the Community Consolidated School District 181 voted earlier this year to increase its minimum distance for free bus service from one mile to 1.5 miles. The plan was to charge riders who live less than 1.5 miles from school.

But after many parents objected to the change, the school board decided to revert to its previous policy. The district then said it would look at consolidating bus routes to help fill its transportation budget gap.

It's not surprising that parents would push back when informed that they'll have to pay for their kids to ride the school bus. What is surprising is Zoeller's opinion in Indiana.

While I can't speak to the technicalities of what may or may not make school bus fees "unconstitutional" in that state, it seems counterintuitive to deter districts from using fees to try to keep their bus programs running. If a district can't afford to continue providing free rides and has to cut transportation (except for special-needs students), no one wins.

That's what just happened at Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District. Its board voted to eliminate general-education elementary bus service, a move that impacts about 1,500 students.

The North County Times reported that the district began charging $360 per student last year, but less than half of the expected revenue came in, mainly because of the high number of students from low-income families qualifying for free transportation.

School busing should be offered for free as much as possible. But when budget shortfalls abound, it's a service that's well worth a dollar a ride.

Related Topics: bus fees

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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