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posted: 4/21/2012 7:00 AM

State idea: School busing no longer free or required

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  • Buses line up before dismissal at Barrington Middle School Station campus Friday. Illinois is considering letting schools charge fees for busing students.

       Buses line up before dismissal at Barrington Middle School Station campus Friday. Illinois is considering letting schools charge fees for busing students.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Buses line up before dismissal at Barrington Middle School Station campus Friday. Illinois is considering letting schools charge fees for busing students.

       Buses line up before dismissal at Barrington Middle School Station campus Friday. Illinois is considering letting schools charge fees for busing students.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- Local school districts would no longer be required to bus students to school or could charge students fees to ride under a plan being considered by the Illinois State Board of Education.

The state is considering pushing changes in the coming weeks that would end a state mandate for free busing for students who live more than a mile and a half from school or who face certain hazards that prevent walking.

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Details are far from final and changes might not take effect until 2014, but spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the plan could include further reductions in how much some school districts get from the state to pay for student transportation.

The idea is a response to state cutbacks in recent years in funding for bus services, which have hit some suburban districts hard.

School districts can now charge children who live close to school to ride the bus, but most others ride free.

It's unclear how fees would work, or even if the idea will be part of the state board's final plan, as no legislation has been filed in Springfield. Some lawmakers already are balking at the idea of increased fees as constituents also face rising property tax bills and budget crunches in a tough economy.

"As a suburbanite, there would be no way we could accept something like this," said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat on one of the Illinois House's education committees.

Elgin Area District U-46 spokesman Tony Sanders said he doesn't think a fee would help.

"We could never charge a fee high enough to cover the cost of transportation," he said.

Sanders said the state board's plan could reduce how much the school district gets for busing by $1 million or more.

In response to previous state funding cuts, District U-46 put in place a controversial system last fall in which high-schoolers have to gather at a centralized location -- a park or neighborhood school -- to catch a bus to their high school.

Lorraine Pahlke, owner of Barrington Transportation Co., said officials should remember that buses are the safest way to get children to school, and higher fees might lead more parents to drive their children.

"The issue that they keep forgetting in all this is the safety of the children," said Pahlke, whose company transports students in Barrington Area Unit District 220.

"School board members will first take into account the safety and well-being of the students," Illinois Association of School Boards Associate Executive Director Ben Schwarm was quoted as saying in the organization's April newsletter. "And reducing bus routes, requiring parents to drive their children to school, and charging for student transportation may not be in the best interest of the students, parents, and members of the community."

Some districts in Illinois -- like Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 -- already are not required to provide bus services and therefore can charge fees, because of how they were originally organized under state law. But most are required by state laws to run buses.

District 57 started charging parents $450 per child for bus services this year. Parent Mary Draffkorn says that really adds up for her three children, and a lot of parents have abandoned the bus system.

"A lot of parents decided to drive," she said. "There's not a lot of kids on the bus."

Fergus said the state board wants to change how transportation money is handed out in expectation of further cuts in state funding for buses. Under the plan, the state would for the first time consider how many students a district transports, as well as how many miles their buses go, when deciding funding allocations.

But that idea is still tentative, and details may not be final until next week, Fergus said.

Like Crespo, state Rep. Darlene Senger said she'd likely not back a plan that would have schools charge for busing.

"If the state doesn't pay for it, then the individuals and parents have to pay for it. Is that fair?" said the Naperville Republican, who also is on a House education committee. "The whole goal needs to be to get our kids to the classrooms -- no matter what."

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