School district searching for transportation solution after state cuts
Every school day at 7:56 a.m., Shayla Johnson and Darryl Dixon walk their first-grader to the bus stop at Los Angeles Avenue and Sacramento Avenue before going about their busy daily lives.
“We rely on that bus,” Johnson said as she watched her son board the big yellow vehicle Tuesday morning.
After California cut $248 million from school transportation funding earlier this month, Lake Tahoe Unified School District and many other rural school districts are trying to figure out how they can continue to provide much-needed bus service for students.
“We’re not like suburban and urban school districts where kids can walk to school,” said LTUSD Superintendent Jim Tarwater.
The LTUSD transportation system busses around 1,800 students every day – more than half the total enrollment – across 17 bus routes. With the state’s implementation of midyear “trigger” cuts, LTUSD will lose $382,000 of their $1.2 million transportation budget. Before the cuts, the state only reimbursed the school district $824,000 for transportation. The rest comes from the district’s general fund.
While students take a holiday break, Tarwater and other administrators will take to the district’s budget to see what can be cut to save the bus system.
“We’re looking at a variety of areas for savings,” Tarwater said. “We hope we can find it.”
Making the cuts even more difficult are $1 million in reductions the school district had to absorb at the beginning of the school year. Tarwater will present a proposal for cuts to the school board at the Jan. 24 meeting, but it’s likely they’ll have to dip into “rainy day” reserves to finish the year, he said.
“Our fear is that it’s not just a one-time hit,” Tarwater said.
Administrators will look for efficiencies in the transportation system, but there’s few to be had after cuts three years ago forced the school district to shorten routes and drop the number of stops.
Because of the weather, distance and parents’ many obligations, it’s impossible for students to make it to school any other way, Tarwater said. Cutting transportation is not fair because rural districts are hit harder than others, he added. Even state superintendent of schools Tom Torlakson acknowledged the difficult position the transportation cuts put rural districts in.
“Mothballing school bus fleets across the state will mean many rural, disabled, and low-income students literally will have no safe way to get to school,” he said in a statement.
In Alpine County, where four busses take students to and from school from as far away as 50 miles, Alpine County School District will lose $90,000 in state transportation funding from the district’s total budget of just more than $1 million.
“We really, really need to provide transportation,” said Lisa Fontana, Alpine County School District’s superintendent.
Lake Tahoe Unified bus driver Michele Sterling said she feels betrayed by state politicians who continue to cut education funding. Sterling knows firsthand how important transportation is to South Lake Tahoe students.
“There’s kids that won’t go to school if there’s no busses,” she said.
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