Hal Borland, the legendary New York Times journalist who was famous for his "outdoor editorials," once wrote, "No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn." Although anyone living in the upper Midwest or Northeast portion of America might have doubted that notion this year, it seems spring has indeed finally arrived.
The trouble is that spring 2011 has brought us more than just flowering plants and warmer weather; political unrest both here and abroad seems to be blooming, too.
Recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey are most emblematic of the highly charged political circumstances across America. Each of these states had daily national news coverage in late February and in March about grappling matches between governors, legislatures and groups affected by budgets cuts.
Unlike the federal government that prints its own money (or borrows it), state revenue streams rise or fall based on economic activities within their borders. And those streams are mostly not looking good.
Regrettably, school transportation is among the many public services being viewed askance because of America's lamentable economy. And on top of that, instability in the Middle East has created another round of questions and concerns about the availability of oil and its related impact on the price of fuel. As an industry, we're facing "all bets are off" times. Gone are the halcyon days of being able to tout the safety, reliability and convenience of yellow school buses as sufficient justification for their existence and funding.
Thus, the biggest school bus-related story nearly midway into 2011 is the continuing economic recession forcing new budget realities in most states, especially those with constitutions that require balanced budgets. Policymakers are being forced to make painful decisions: big spending cuts, increasing taxes or both. National polling captures the political dilemma: Most of the public favors spending cuts, just not to anything important to them personally!
In the quest to fi nd revenue, almost anything is on the table, including things like commercial advertising on school buses. It's already allowed in about six states and under active consideration in others as a way to raise needed revenue for education.
Probably most in our industry are concerned about this for two main reasons. First, it positions school buses as a commercial revenue stream, which has debatable implications. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it has the potentially devastating perceptual effect of decoupling pupil transportation from education, removing school buses from being regarded as a critical link in the education system to being simply transportation.
That's why it was nice to have U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood support us at the Feb. 22 American School Bus Council "Love the Bus" event in Montgomery County, Md. Secretary LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, signaled that he understands the value of school buses.
LaHood joined school bus and local education offi cials and Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen to help students honor driver Wellington Varona Abud, who symbolically represented the drivers of all 480,000 school buses in the U.S.
Writing afterward about the event in his popular and widely read blog, LaHood said, "Buses are several times safer than being driven to school by a parent. Because each bus takes 36 cars off the road, school buses nationwide save 2.3 billion gallons of gas every year.
"Most of us never consider the fact that America's school bus drivers are the first education ambassadors our kids see every day."
He then quoted Zadia Gadsden, principal of Takoma Park Elementary School, where the event was held: "The first step toward a good education is a safe and positive experience getting to school each morning. The bus makes a difference not just in attendance, but in achievement," Gadsden said.
LaHood continued: "And that's where 'Mr. Wellington' [Abud] and his counterparts across the nation come in. And if you heard the affection his young riders expressed for him, you would understand what an important role he plays, not just in keeping those riders safe, but in getting their school day off to a promising start."
In concluding his blog post, LaHood noted that "I left Takoma Park with a renewed appreciation for the complicated challenge of managing a countywide network of school buses. But mostly I left with an appreciation for the nation's school bus drivers."
We have been encouraging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do more to promote school bus service. They have promised to do a public education campaign about the safety, environmental and economic benefits of yellow bus transportation. If this was the down payment, I can't wait to see the rest of what they have in mind.
Thank you, Secretary LaHood and Ms. Gadsden, for summarizing perfectly what the school bus industry does every day and why we do it.
I hope every local, state and school system policymaker will keep these words in mind as they evaluate their difficult budget options.
Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.