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Superintendent News & Views: Taken for a Ride

January 19, 2018
David Hill - North Tama Superintendent , Traer Star-Clipper

During the 2016-2017 school year, North Tama's school buses traveled over 48,000 miles on regular daily bus routes and over 16,000 miles on "non-route" transportation such as field trips and activity trips. An average of 178.4 students were transported on our routes each day, with an annual average cost per transported pupil of $1,210.

This might sound like a lot of miles and a very high cost per student, because it is. The North Tama district includes 155 square miles of total land area, and our students are distributed among large area including Traer, Buckingham, Clutier, and Dinsdale, and the rural areas surrounding these small towns. Many other large rural districts are in a similar situation. My other district (Gladbrook-Reinbeck: 189 square miles) is in a similar situation, spending about $1,261 per transported student last year.

Compare this to a district like the Marion Independent School district which has a total land area of 3.6 square miles. That district's annual average cost per pupil transported last year was $517.57. In the West Burlington district (land area: 2 square miles), the average per-student cost was $532.86.

Statistically speaking, school buses are the safest way for the district to transport hundreds of students to and from school and on their various activity trips; furthermore, Iowa school districts are required by law to provide free transportation for any elementary student living 2 or more miles from the school and any secondary student living 3 or more miles from the school.

In some urban and suburban districts with a higher population density, a bus can travel three or four miles and be filled to capacity, while in some rural districts a bus can travel three or four miles and only stop for the occasional stop sign. Here at North Tama, we were able to reduce a bus route this year, so we're now operating three daily routes rather than four. We're doing our best to make our transportation system as efficient and effective as possible so more of our limited funding can be used to provide educational opportunities for students.

Yes, busing is expensive that's nothing new. The problem is that the funds used to pay for most transportation expenses such as bus driver salaries, fuel, and most bus repairs must come from the general fund that's the same funding source that is used to pay for most educational expenses such as teacher salaries, textbooks, classroom software, and supplies. The general fund dollars come to the district based on a per-pupil allocation that is essentially the same for all districts. Therefore, school districts like North Tama that serve a large rural area and spend more on transportation have less to spend on classroom instruction. Or if you look at it another way, students from urban and suburban districts that spend less per-student on transportation have an advantage, since their districts have more money to spend on classroom instruction.

Either way you look at it, this situation is inequitable. A student who lives in Clutier or Traer should have access to the same educational opportunities as a student from Waterloo, Waukee, or West Des Moines. But the only way to ensure that would be for there to be some sort of separate funding source outside of a district's per-pupil funding to pay for transportation costs. Transportation equity legislation was proposed during the 2017 legislative session, but the legislation wasn't supportedprimarily because it would just be so expensive to provide the equity that districts like North Tama need and deserve.

Consider asking your elected representatives their feelings about this transportation equity issue. I still believe the Iowa legislature should be asked to provide an additional funding stream for transportation, or use a formula based on population density when determining Supplemental State Aid.

Perhaps you saw the recent news story on KWWL News called "Taken for a Ride" which looked on this topic in depth, focusing on the Western Dubuque Community School District which is Iowa's largest at 555 square miles. Yes, that's where I got the title for this column and I believe it is an appropriate title because there truly are many students and school districts that are being "Taken for a Ride." The video portion of the story has now been taken down from the KWWL website, but you can read the associated article here:

Our rural students represent the future of Iowa. No matter where they live, they deserve equal access to a top-notch school experience! Each and every one of them deserves a quality education regardless of whether they live in one of Iowa's large metro areas, a growing suburb, or in a rural area that may be losing population.

You are welcome to visit my blog at column and all of the columns I have written for the Star Clipper posted. You are also welcome to follow me on Twitter, where my handle is @DavidRobertHill.



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