Is Wash. Governor Really Planning to Slash School Buses? State Director Says No

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Despite widespread reporting that Gov. Christine Gregoire’s initial budget reduction plan might completely eliminate school bus service, the Washington state director of pupil transportation, Allan J. Jones, said Gregoire has indicated she will not include this particular item.

The governor floated the proposal in advance of a special legislative session later this month. Another item that impacts student transportation officials, involving bus-depreciation payments from the state, will probably remain on her list of budget reduction alternatives, Jones added.

“There are a lot of other options, some of which are similarly draconian. But, she indicated she wasn’t including eliminating bus transportation,” said Jones, who has worked with the governor for many years.

Jones clarified that nowhere in the state budget proposal does the governor refer to eliminating all school bus transportation, as other media reports have suggested, because of the federal mandate requiring free service for eligible children with disabilities. Cessation of transportation service for regular-education students would have saved the state an estimated $220 million, however.

“My spin is that she included it not because it’s a serious proposal, but she wanted it to be something the average family could look at and see how serious the budget crisis is — compared to other government programs that don’t really affect people’s everyday lives,” Jones said.

Potential impacts of losing school bus service statewide include increased fuel costs of about $656 more per family, based on the American School Bus Council’s fuel calculator. Additionally, families with school-aged children would travel five million miles more each day statewide to and from local campuses that otherwise would be serviced by school buses. That would also equate to about 250,000 additional cars on the road, around schools each weekday.

“I don’t see that she’s going to include it in her budget. It would involve a lot of hassle. There would also be pretty obvious court cases immediately because in Washington, transportation has been included as part of ‘basic education,’ and our Constitution requires ample funding for basic education,” Jones explained.

Another budget reduction alternative that will remain on the list, he said, would affect the timing of bus depreciation payments the state sends to school districts. Currently, the state Department of Education makes these payments in September to school districts, through the county treasurer.

“It’s a very dedicated fund that is only used for yellow buses,” Jones said, adding that transportation officials must present actual bus invoices to even access those funds. “Instead of sending out this payment by the end of September, they would send it at the end of August — the end of the school year. It has a one-year impact.”

So, the state would not have to pay out $48 million by Sept. 12, 2012, but would have a new deadline of August 2013.

“It would create some difficulty for school districts, but most of them would have reserve accounts they could move over to purchase new buses,” Jones continued. “As far as their annual budget, it wouldn’t really look any different.”