The Boston public schools, facing a growing deficit that will lead to severe budget cuts, spend more than $2 million a year to bus students to private and parochial schools around the city, even though the school system has no legal obligation to transport most of them.
Many of the buses traverse the city with far more empty seats than students. More than a dozen of the bus routes transport fewer than 10 students, according to a report presented to the School Committee this week. One bus brings a single student to a South Boston Catholic school, while another carries just one student to a private school in Hyde Park.
The free rides, the subject of increasing scrutiny, have pitted some school and city officials against each other in a potentially volatile debate. While officials are desperately searching for budget cuts, they are also wary of the political implications of eliminating the quietly treasured perk.
"It pains me to know that we are transporting private school children while we are cutting math and reading coaches in our public schools," said committee member Helen Dájer. "I don't know how we can defend that to folks in the Boston public schools."
But others, including John M. Tobin Jr., a city councilor from West Roxbury, are arguing to keep the service in place.
"They should pick them up in limousines," Tobin said. "Their parents are taxpayers who are subsidizing a system [the public schools] they don't use."
A state law enacted in the 1980s requires public school systems to bus students to private and parochial schools if the students live more than 2 miles from a public school.
In Boston, where nearly all elementary and middle school students live within 2 miles of a school, the district would not have been required to provide transportation for most of the students. But the system chose to transport the students anyway because, at the time the law was enacted, the state reimbursed the city for a portion of their total transportation costs.
The school system continued the practice even after the state stopped the reimbursements in 2004. Asked about it yesterday, school officials could not explain why they have continued to bus the students.
Approximately 12,200 children attend private or parochial schools in Boston, compared with 56,000 in the public system. The public school system transports 363 elementary students to dozens of private and parochial schools around the city and buys MBTA passes for another 1,592 middle and high school students who attend such schools.
As public school parents have gradually learned about the practice, many have expressed anger that Boston is still transporting private and parochial school students whom the city is not legally obliged to bus. Critics of the service say it has become an expectation among tax-paying private school parents that would be politically costly to dismantle.
"It's outrageous. Public money should be spent on public schools," said Beverly Mitchell, cochairwoman of the Boston Citywide Parents Council. "I object to my tax money being used to support the private domain. If you choose to go the private route, you should be prepared to pay. And that goes for tuition, books and supplies, and transportation costs."
But others, including some city officials, say it would be a burden for some private school parents to shuttle their children to school because they work multiple jobs to pay thousands in tuition.
Tobin called the private and parochial school transportation report, which the school system released Wednesday, a "diversionary tactic from talking about the . . . elephant in the room," referring to a costly school assignment system.
"I don't know whether it makes me laugh or my blood boil," said Tobin, who has threatened to veto a school system budget that eliminates private and parochial school transportation because many families send their children to those schools when they cannot get into public schools closer to home.
Tobin, who favors changing the assignment process to send more students to neighborhood schools, said busing those students is the "least the city can do."
The elementary school students who attend private and parochial schools catch the bus on the same street-corner stops that serve public school students. Those private school students ride buses designated to stop at their specific school, leaving many routes serving only a handful of students.
Students at private schools are also frequently bused farther than their public school peers. Public school students for the most part must attend schools within a certain zone, but 65 percent of private elementary students are bused outside their zone.
The school system faces a $33.2 million shortfall in next year's $815.5 million budget. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has also ordered the system to shave $10 million from its $76.5 million transportation budget.
Eliminating transportation for private and parochial school students could save the city up to $1.5 million a year, which includes driver wages, benefits, and fuel and about $322,000 for MBTA passes. The system would still need to pay for bus maintenance and other fixed costs, which total more than $500,000.
Limiting private and parochial school busing to students' attendance zones would save $400,000 to $700,000.
The School Committee and the system's new superintendent, Carol Johnson, are treading carefully on the issue. Fearful of potential protests from private and parochial school parents, they say they are not ready to quit busing private and parochial school students without examining the entire student assignment system.
"As we consider the whole budget, it's fair game to look at," said Elizabeth Reilinger, School Committee chairwoman.
Johnson said: "It's a School Committee decision. They want to consider their options. They have to keep everything on the table at the moment."
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.