Before Charging School Bus Fees, Districts Must Know State Law

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As more and more school districts nationwide consider the option of charging parents for school bus rides as a way to stay out of the red, a recent survey of states shows that there could be laws or regulations in place that prohibit such revenue-raising efforts.

Earlier this summer, Indiana State Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a legal opinion that school districts that charge parents for school bus rides are violating the state constitution because schools there have never been granted the authority by the state legislature to do so. Pete Baxter, who retired last month as the state’s director of student transportation at the Indiana Department of Education, said the issue came as a surprise to him when raised earlier this year by Franklin Township Community Schools, which was considering school bus fees as a way to reduce the transportation department’s encroachment on the overall school budget.

Baxter’s response was one of nearly three dozen nationwide in response to a School Transportation News survey of his counterparts responsible for administering school transportation programs through their respective state departments of education or affiliated government agency.

The survey found that, to the state directors’ knowledge, at least 14 states including Indiana specifically prohibit any school district from charging parents bus fees for regular route transportation. Another 13 states indicated that nothing prohibits school districts from charging. The issue appears related to whether the state requires home-to-school transportation to begin with. According to the American School Bus Council, 18 states do not require regular route school busing of students.

But still, things are not cut and dry.

Nevada received guidance from its attorney general all the way back in 1981 that the board of trustees of a school district does not have the authority to charge a fee for transportation to and from school. In Virginia, June Eanes, the state’s director of student transportation, responded via the STN survey that school districts are only allowed to accept payment for field trips that are a part of school program or extracurricular activity trips that students are not required to attend or participate in. Meanwhile, in Michigan, state law requires that, if school districts provide transportation route service for their pupils, they must do so without charge.

In Oregon, school districts are prohibited from charging parents when the student is eligible for regular route service. Similar to many states, Oregon’s elementary students who live more than one mile from school and the state’s secondary school students who reside more than 1.5 miles from school are eligible for school busing and, according to State Director Steven Huillet, exempt from paying.

Demonstrating how confusing the issue can be, other states weren’t sure how to answer the question. Max Christensen, the state director of student transportation in Iowa, said the state doesn’t allow fees to be charged beyond the two-mile limit for elementary and the three-mile limit for high school.

“Under those limits, districts are allowed to charge a fee, but over those limits, transportation is required by the district,” he added.

Wyoming has similar rules to Iowa. Retiring State Director D. Leeds Pickering said that there are limited times when a school district can charge, but they may never charge for transporting a student who lives more than two miles from their campus.

Some states indicated they just don’t know. Louisiana is requesting its own state attorney general issue an opinion on charging fees, according to Michael Coburn, the director of school bus transportation at the department of education. Leon Langley at the Maryland Department of Education said the state did not have any language one way or another on school bus fees. In Utah, State Director Murrell Martin said the department of education is presently exploring under what conditions school districts may be able to charge for transporting “ineligible” students to and from school.