District school-bus changes loom

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2003

Next school year, the Juneau School District may have to cut some bus routes or change schools' starting times to balance its transportation budget, a consultant has suggested.

The state no longer reimburses school districts for their actual busing costs. Instead, starting this school year, the state will give districts grants based on their enrollments.

This school year's grant is for the same amount as last year's reimbursement - about $2 million in Juneau and $54 million statewide.

For the first two years of the grant program, the grants will rise at half the rate of any increase in the consumer price index in Anchorage, said Eddy Jeans, school finance director at the state Department of Education.

The Legislature imposed the grant program to contain the state's school-busing expenses, which had more than doubled in the past 10 years, Jeans said.

But with the potential of higher rates from the bus contractor and declining enrollments, Juneau could be looking at closing a $200,000 gap in transportation costs next school year, consultant Zach Hanna, a former district business manager, told the Juneau School Board last week.

He recommended that the School Board consider a mix of reducing the number of bus routes and staggering the starting times of schools so that fewer buses are needed.

The district pays its bus contractor by the number of buses it uses, not by the number of routes. It pays $50,000 per bus for 30 buses for regular students and $67,000 per bus for nine buses for special-ed students, Hanna's report said.

Shifting some school starting times by as little as 15 minutes could allow fewer buses to be used, Hanna told the School Board.

The district also would need fewer buses if it discontinued some bus routes for children who live within a mile and a half of school and don't face hazardous walking conditions, he said. Hanna suggested that seven current bus routes, collectively carrying 330 students, probably wouldn't meet the threshold for hazardous routes.

Those are policy questions the School Board will have to wrestle with, first in its Policy Committee. The state is planning to repeal its regulations that tell districts how to set up bus routes. Districts will have to come up with their own standards.

"There's a lot of variables that will play into it," Jeans of the education department said. "Districts will take a closer look into how they're routing these buses. If they eliminate one or two buses, that's savings they can use to offset inflation, or whatever."

Among the basic questions are the minimum number of students that a bus route must have, and how far from school children must live to be eligible for a bus route, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

The district also would have to establish criteria for designating when walking conditions are so unsafe that buses should be provided even if children live near a school.

The Anchorage School District, for example, has set up a committee composed of government officials, school district officials and parents to decide each spring what routes are hazardous.

Only about a third of Juneau's roughly 5,200 students ride school buses, Hanna said. Ridership varies considerably among the schools, ranging from just one-seventh of Floyd Dryden Middle School students to half of Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School students.

But all students and many parents, some of whom drive their children to school, will be affected by the new transportation policies if they lead to new starting and ending times for schools.

One of Hanna's scenarios for consideration has three schools starting at 8 a.m., three at 8:30 and three at 9:15. Another scenario would start five schools at 8, three at 8:45, and Juneau-Douglas High School at 9:45. A third plan shows two schools starting at 8, three at 8:30 and four at 9:15.

Schools now start between 8 and 9.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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