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Calif. school districts decry end to busing funds

By Christina Hoag
Associated Press / December 15, 2011
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LOS ANGELES—School districts throughout California are scrambling to cover the elimination of $248 million in funding for school buses starting next month, with the state's largest district filing a lawsuit to block the cuts and others saying they'll have to use reserves in order to keep transportation service.

"It's an incredibly unfair way to go about this," said Marc Johnson, superintendent of Sanger Unified School District, which covers 185-square miles in the Central Valley and where some two-thirds of students take buses to school.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday announced the elimination in bus funding as part of a package of so-called trigger cuts in state programs that will go into effect in January due to a shortfall in state revenue for the current fiscal year.

School districts will also see another $79.6 million lopped in general funding.

John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, called the loss of $38 million in bus funds to his district "catastrophic," saying it would affect 48,000 students, including 13,000 special needs students. The school board immediately voted to file for a temporary restraining order to block the cut.

In announcing the cuts, Brown had added that "everything we do, we get sued on." The state was hoping to prevail in the U.S. Supreme Court on a case that would give the state greater authority to make reductions to a variety of programs, he said Tuesday, and that he was confident the bus funding cut is legal.

In the meantime, Deasy pledged to juggle the budget to keep buses running in January. "We cannot simply terminate service," he said.

Representatives of the California School Boards Association and Association of California School Administrators said they are considering joining the lawsuit because it will adversely affect low-income districts the most, as well as disabled pupils who must travel to special programs.

"There's a very serious issue of equity here," said Bob Wells, executive director of the school administrators group.

Access to education for rural students who live far from schools and safety for urban students are at stake, said Patty Scripter, director of legislation for the California State Parent Teacher Association. "It's not just a ride to school," she said.

While urban districts have a fall back in public transit, outlying farming districts do not, noted Johnson, whose 11,000-student district will lose $500,000 in busing funds. He said the district will be able to cover the loss from its general fund, but that was money that could have gone to classrooms.

"We'll run the buses every day. We don't have a choice," Johnson said. "We have families who don't have a car. This is one of the inequities in this cut."

In Los Angeles, students at two magnet high schools said some of their friends travel as far as 30 miles to attend the high performing schools. Without buses, they would be forced to attend failing neighborhood schools, thus limiting their educational and career opportunities.

"This is about access to education," said Maria Martirosyan, a senior at Bravo Medical Magnet High School. "We are being infringed upon."

The Bakersfield City School District is slated to lose $1.2 million in busing funds. It will likely absorb the loss from its reserves to keep buses operating, said Chief Business Official Steve McClain.

The state provides only a portion of busing costs to districts, many of which do not provide buses to neighborhood schools. Many students use public transportation or rely on their parents.

Districts, however, must provide buses to magnet schools, schools in federally mandated improvement programs and for special needs students.

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said Wednesday he will push for a referendum to ask voters in November for a tax to fund public education, noting that school districts have lost 25 percent of their state funding -- some $18 billion -- over the past four years.

He noted that they may lose more.

"Enough is enough," he said. "The financial emergency we have been in is only getting worse."

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