School district bus service in limbo


By Marsha Sutton

Governor Jerry Brown’s signature Feb. 10 on a fast-tracked bill to restore $248 million in this year’s funding for home-to-school transportation was welcome news for the San Dieguito Union High School District, which transports about 900 middle and high school students on buses daily.

Because the $248 million mid-year trigger cut, which became effective Jan. 1, hurt school districts, particularly rural districts, disproportionately, Senate Bill 81, to restore the funding, quickly passed both the state Assembly and Senate Feb. 2 with bipartisan support.

Home-to-school transportation remains in jeopardy for the 2012-2013 school year though, with possible state cuts to the program of nearly $500 million.

For SDUHSD families considering high school and middle school selections for the fall, principals are being asked to explain that busing may no longer be offered.

The district is informing parents of the busing uncertainty for the next school year, Eric Dill told school board members at their Feb. 2 general meeting. This may include the shuttle service between Carmel Valley and Earl Warren Middle School, said Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services.

About 800 middle school students and about 100 high school students ride district buses to and from school, he said. Of the 800 middle school students, 337 attend Diegueno and Oak Crest middle schools in the northern portion of the district, and 474 are Carmel Valley or Earl Warren middle school students.

Dill said 268 students ride a bus to Carmel Valley Middle School, most coming from areas south of State Route 56, and 206 ride a bus to Earl Warren Middle School, 30 of those from the Carmel Valley area.

Without bus service, Earl Warren, which has less than half the enrollment of CVMS, could see its enrollment drop further next year. But Dill was optimistic that the potential loss of bus service would not deter students from choosing Earl Warren.

“What gets kids to Earl Warren are the programs and the size of the school,” he said. “It’s not the bus.”

Of the 800 middle school bus riders, about 90 low-income students qualify to ride free, Dill said. The others pay $600 per year, a fee which he said is legal to charge as long as the district makes no profit and a waiver is offered for low-income families.

The cost to the district per rider is about $1,375, excluding special education students and field trips, creating an encroachment on the district’s general fund of about $265,000.

Also riding SDUHSD buses to and from school are about 100 high school students, nearly all of them from low-income families that qualify for a fee waiver.

Dill said there are two primary routes – students going from Solana Beach (mainly the Eden Gardens area) to Torrey Pines High School, and students transported from areas in Encinitas to La Costa Canyon High School.

These routes, he said, were first created decades ago when federal funding was provided in the form of “desegregation grants,” as a way to get lower-income students to school. Eventually, that funding expired, he said, but the routes continued.

Uncertainty over next year’s transportation funding frustrates school districts because last-minute changes to busing influence decisions made by families and students, affect employees, and complicate logistical plans.

“We may not know until May or June what the reality’s going to be,” Dill said.

There is the possibility the state may provide the transportation dollars to school districts next year with fewer restrictions on how the money can be spent.

If San Dieguito were given greater flexibility, Dill said the school board’s trustees would decide how it should be allocated.

“In the past, they’ve indicated they feel middle school transportation is very important, but at the same time we have many challenges in many different areas of our budget,” he said.