This year Seattle Public Schools is facing unprecedented budget cuts yet again, leaving the district scrambling to plug the gaps. One proposal from the school board would cut all busing to twelve option schools for the 2021-2022 school year.
Although this is presented as a cost-saving measure, the district isn’t sure how much money this move would save, or if it would save any at all. School Board President Chandra Hampson has been upfront in stating her opinion that option schools are inequitable, and that the proposal to cut busing to option schools is intended to drive forward a discussion about option schools and equity in SPS.
While that is an important conversation to have, a sudden cut to option school bus services would have dramatic impacts on families’ lives, and the downstream implications for traffic safety, air quality and over-capacity schools have not been adequately considered. Worse, according to an estimate developed by the Transportation Department, cutting busing might not save any money at all.
A loss of busing would force some students to change schools on the heels of the pandemic and enroll in their neighborhood schools. Many of these schools are too full to handle a sudden jump in enrollment. SPS analysis shows that if 10% of the impacted option school students choose to return to their neighborhood schools next year, it would result in 17 schools being over capacity.
This likely understates the magnitude of the potential enrollment impacts. Many of the schools on the list are already over capacity, and simply can not accommodate an influx of students.
It’s also sobering to consider the traffic implications of hundreds of additional parent vehicles converging on each of these schools at morning drop-off time. Whether the schools are located on sleepy residential streets or busy arterials, the traffic and safety impacts would be severe. Hello, gridlock, and increased traffic risk for the many families whose kids currently are slated to walk to these schools.
Seattle Public Schools is proud to have recently approved a policy transitioning to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2040, with electric buses a central piece of the policy. While this is admirable, this won’t accomplish much if SPS decides to outsource student transportation to parents in family cars. Pushing student transportation onto hundreds of personal vehicles would result in dramatically increased emissions and reduced air quality around schools, a poor way to implement the clean-energy policy.
The financial justification for a sudden cut to option school busing also needs to be examined more closely. SPS estimates savings for this plan range from no money saved to $1.1 million.
To understand why cutting busing may not lead to savings, let’s take a look at how the state funds transportation.
The state’s transportation funding formula system, called STARS, is a woefully inadequate funding mechanism. The STARS formula is primarily based on the number of students riding general education buses and the number of school sites served.
What’s not included in STARS? Costs for transportation services that are mandated by federal law, including taxis and ride-shares to transport students experiencing homelessness and the costs for transporting special education students to receive services at non-school sites. Crossing guard salaries and staff to support walking and biking groups are also left out. These omissions add up to a shortfall of 15 to 25% of the district’s approximately $40 million transportation budget every year. SPS has to make up that shortfall out of the general fund.
However, yellow bus service is closer to being fully funded than are most education costs. According to a 2019 report by Council of the Great City Schools, from 2015 through 2018 general education busing was reimbursed by OSPI at an average rate of 97.5%. Crucially, because of the way STARS is calculated, cutting the number of students riding general ed buses results in a cut to transportation funding for the following year. Cutting bus service does nothing to plug the gaping and inexcusable shortfalls in transportation funding from the state.
While comparatively small, the shortfall for general ed bus costs has been creeping up. SPS estimates it will be as high as 11% next year if no changes are made. The gap is driven by inefficient bus routing that leads to partially empty buses. SPS has always developed bus routes for all eligible kids regardless of whether those kids choose to ride the bus. Fortunately the Transportation Department has a plan to fix this. Next year SPS will move to opt-in bus service for eligible students, and routes will become more efficient because they will be developed for actual, rather than potential, riders.
So how much money will more efficient bus routing save? SPS estimates the savings will be between $3.1 and $5.8 million annually, far more than their estimated savings for cutting bus service.
So to sum up, while school transportation as a whole is grievously underfunded, general ed bus costs are mostly covered by the state, and cuts to general ed busing reduce transportation funding for the district.
Cutting bus service to option schools would exacerbate overcrowding at 17 schools, increase air pollution at option schools, and cause dangerous spikes in traffic around the affected schools.
At a transportation work session on February 23, SPS staff were asked what changes they recommend for the 2021-2022 school year. Cutting bus service to option schools did not make the list.
The school board should rely on the expertise of the Transportation Department when moving forward with changes to busing. The potential savings, if any, of cutting bus service to option schools do not justify the negative impacts on families, overcrowded schools, and school neighbors.