OLYMPIA, Wash. — On May 24, the state Legislature released its proposed 2011-13 biennial operating budget, which provides full funding for the state’s five regional transportation coordinators. In addition, money for school bus replacements has not been touched.
This was welcome news to members of the Washington Association for Pupil Transportation (WAPT), who had been working diligently to voice their concerns over proposed changes to these issues, as SBF reported in March.
“We’re very excited and we’re so thankful — it’s been a long, hard road,” WAPT President Tom Culliton, who is director of transportation for North Mason School District in Belfair, Wash., told SBF in an interview. “We’re also very humbled. K-12 took cuts all across the board. School districts in the state of Washington didn’t get out of this lightly.”
In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed removing from her budget funding for the regional transportation coordinators and moving money from the state’s Transportation Vehicle Fund into operations and transportation to support the state’s new funding formula for school districts. Culliton and other WAPT members contacted numerous government officials about the impact these changes would have, and they also worked to spread the word to the state’s pupil transportation community.
In addition, on May 16, members of WAPT — including Culliton and Ron Lee, the association’s legislative liaison — as well as officials from the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Public School Employees of Washington and the Washington Association of School Administrators testified at a public hearing in the Senate Ways & Means Committee against Senate Bill 5476.
Currently, school districts in the state receive payments annually to accumulate funding for bus replacements over a period of years. Senate Bill 5476 would have changed this by only providing districts with a single payment in the final year in the lifetime of the vehicle.
In his testimony, Culliton made several points about the legislation. He said that the state has put a tremendous amount of money in the capital budget to get pre-1994 buses off the road or retrofit them and that if districts don’t have yearly depreciation funding, they will be forced to keep older and less efficient buses for many more years.
Second, he explained that many school districts, including his, use the yearly depreciation money to support lease/purchase agreements or as the revenue stream to pay for non-voted debt to buy buses.
“Our concern was that if you take the money for transportation away, millions of dollars come out of the school districts’ general fund to back-fill transportation debt services, and that’s ultimately taking money out of the classrooms, so it would be a no-win situation,” Culliton explained to SBF.
Also during his testimony, Culliton noted that the bill would make it difficult for the bus vendors that serve the state’s school districts to stay in business because fewer districts would be buying buses because of the lack of annual depreciation dollars. Finally, he said that while there may be some savings early on to meet today’s budget needs, over the long term, this cut would actually cost the state more money.
Culliton told SBF that the senators were responsive to the group’s testimonies and he believes that it gave them an opportunity to understand the ramifications if the bill progressed.
“Leaving our bus replacement system the way it is made us very happy,” he added.
Moreover, he stressed that taking on these legislative issues took persistence and the collective efforts of numerous individuals and groups, including WAPT board members, officials from school districts and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, school bus drivers and technicians.
“A special thanks should go out to Ron Lee, Marcia Fromhold, the WAPT executive board’s legislative representative, and everyone who contacted their state representatives,” Culliton said.