By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Faced with steep budget cuts during the past few years, Petaluma City Schools has significantly reduced its home-to-school bus service. Now interim Superintendent Steve Bolman said he is unsure how much more the district can cut.
“We do know that a number of districts have eliminated it totally, even rural districts,” he said. “We haven’t started those conversations, but the discussion is going to begin.”
And not just in Petaluma after Gov. Jerry Brown this week announced a 50 percent cut to bus funding as part of his plan to slash $1 billion from California’s budget.
Petaluma is expecting to lose $434,185 when the cuts are enacted in January.
Rhonda Bellmer, Superintendent of West Side School District in Healdsburg, said transportation costs already outpace what districts receive from the state, so the cut announced Tuesday means a deeper dip into the general fund.
“It’s a cut to transportation, but if your transportation is underfunded, you might as well call it a cut to the general fund,” she said.
West Side, a 175-student district that stands to lose about $20,000 in the new round of cuts, may consider dropping all but the federally mandated transport of special education students and instead reimburse families for getting their children to school, Bellmer said.
“We are a rural district. It’s a hardship,” she said. “For some families, getting their child on that bus makes all the difference as far as reliable, dependable attendance at school.”
And attendance means revenues for districts. Making it harder for students to get to school could come back to cost districts even more money.
In Windsor, eliminating bus service would be “devastating,” according to Superintendent Tammy Gabel.
“We are not going to eliminate home-to-school transportation in the district. Although we haven’t ruled it out, we are not interested in that at this point,” she said.
That leaves other programs prime for cuts, she said.
“We are going to have to make other cuts and the question is, ‘What’s left?’” she said.
Part of what makes the inclusion of transportation in the cuts announced Tuesday unusual is that districts throughout California have wildly divergent reliance on busing to get students to school, said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent for the Sonoma County Office of Education.
“It’s so unequitable across districts,” she said.
Los Angeles Unified on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brown and other officials over its potential loss of $248 million in transportation funds.
For Santa Rosa’s Associate Superintendent Doug Bower, the issue over buses isn’t entirely financial.
“It’s a safety issue, frankly, too,” he said. “A lot of our boundaries have pretty congested roads or freeways in some cases between neighborhoods and school. Walking is problematic in some cases.”
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.