Hollister school bus service on chopping block

Bus driver Alex Leija gets his riders on to the bus after school

The Hollister School District Board of Trustees will meet Jan. 24 to discuss steps to deal with a complete cut in state funding for school transportation, while the San Benito High School District plans to maintain its program in full.

“Our first reaction was to pull the blanket up over our head and pretend it wasn’t here,” said Gary McIntire, the Hollister School District superintendent. “But it is, and we will have to deal with it.”

Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month that state funding for transportation would be eliminated as revenues came in below anticipated levels. The cut is one of several trigger cuts that went into effect mid-year.

McIntire said the district plans to maintain the same level of service for the rest of the school year. The trustees will be discussing how to proceed for the following school year.

 “The problem for us is going to be with the other anticipated potential cuts next year – with the 100 percent loss of transportation funding, there will also be a pretty significant reduction in the revenue limit,” McIntire said, of how much the state pays the districts per student for average daily attendance. “We can’t ignore that.”

McIntire said that the trustees will have to decide if they should continue bus service next year – and if they do continue it, should they reduce the service or consider fees for the service.

This year, there are 519 students in the district that are eligible for bus service and 332 students who are using it. Elementary school students are eligible for bus service if they live more than 1.5 miles from their school. Middle school students are eligible if they live more than two miles from their school. The district can also allow students based on safety conditions that require transportation.

The budget this year for bus service was $312,790 for general education students and $547,666 for students with special needs.

The state was set to provide $327,036 to the district for transportation funding. With the mid-year cut, that has been reduced to $163,969.

The district has four buses, for which it contracts with Tiffany Transportation Services. The district is on a one-year extension with the company, and part of the discussion at the board meeting will be how to proceed with taking the service out to bid if they decide to continue service.

McIntire said the district will continue to provide transportation for students with special needs who have an individualized education program that includes the service. This year there are 42 of those students using the service.

 “It isn’t a blanket provision that you provide specialized transportation to all students,” McIntire said. “Whenever a student needs access to a free and appropriate public program or is unable to take advantage of regular transportation, it would become a part of an individualized education program.”

McIntire said that he planned to give a serious recommendation that in the absence of transportation funds, the district cannot provide transportation next year.

“We’ve had so many other cuts to the services that we provide – when we’ve cut all the other programs out – it is hard to justify it,” McIntire said.

The San Benito High School District, which maintains its own transportation services, will continue to offer it without state funding, said Debbie Fisher, director of finance and operations.

 “We have not allowed the state direction to choose ours,” Fisher said. “We are maintaining our transportation. We are a rural district and we have many students who need that transportation.”

Kristy Urbina, the transportation supervisor, said that 180 students are using bus service this year. Of those students, 20 are special-needs students who receive door-to-door transportation. Urbina said that the number will be going up next year with incoming freshman. The drivers also pick up 24 students who live in south San Benito County on a route that was developed to go out as far as Old Hernandez Road.

“Before this service, it was a hardship for these students to come to school,” Urbina said, in an email. “I expect at least four incoming freshmen that will utilize this service next year.”

Fisher said the transportation department has done a good job of streamlining the routes to cut costs. She also said that the district sometimes provides bus service to neighboring districts, which brings in some revenue. She said that due to the way the transportation budget works at the high school – with some revenue coming in – it would be hard to give specific numbers on the cost of providing transportation to San Benito High School students.

 “We’ve been watching the income coming in from the state,” she said. “We keep finding ways to cut out costs.”

In the conversation about the transportation budget, McIntire also mentioned the district will see a $12.50 reduction per student for average-daily attendance, the rest of the cut for K-12 schools that came about as part of the trigger cuts. The number is much lower than it was anticipated to be in the fall. But McIntire said it is expected to go down for the next fiscal year.

“All told, we are looking next year at getting 78 cents on the dollar for what the state owes us,” he said. “That’s more than 20 percent. The analogy is that we are operating our school district five days a week and only getting paid for four of them.”

He said that negotiations are continuing with classified staff on a salary cut and reduction in benefits. A state panel recently sided with the district in its proposal to cut individual health-care caps by $3,000, while the two sides remain at the bargaining table.

“We are looking at the massive kind of cuts the governor is proposing if the voters don’t pass (a ballot measure to increase sales tax,)” he said.

The School Transportation Coalition is drafting a letter to be sent to the Legislature.

“The transportation elimination is unfair to our school districts and their children,” the letter reads. “We question the wisdom of this cut and also believe it will have a detrimental impact on the November tax increase measure. We would urge you to restore the transportation funding and protect your children.”

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