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Putting the Brakes on Bus Service : Schools: More districts are starting to reduce or eliminate transportation for students in a bid to cut costs.


In Monrovia, high school students can get a bus ride to school, but they'll have to find their own way home. In San Dimas, students must pay for bus service, even though the state has ruled such fees illegal. And in Covina's Charter Oak Unified School District, home-to-school transportation is about to end entirely.

All across the San Gabriel Valley, school districts are saving money by reducing or eliminating transportation as costs outpace budget growth.

The picture is not much different elsewhere. The Las Virgenes Unified School District, in the west San Fernando Valley, has reduced the number of students it must bus by changing its definition of a safe walking distance. Elementary students are expected to walk three miles, one way, to school. For middle school pupils, the distance is five miles; for high school students, seven miles.

In Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest district in the country, walking distance is irrelevant. Students can ride buses to school only for purposes of enhancing integration, easing overcrowding or attending magnet schools, said Bud Dunevant, director of transportation. Los Angeles has also reduced its budget for late buses, which allow bused-in students to participate in after-school activities.

Living without the familiar bright yellow buses is an adjustment more and more families will have to make, Monrovia Supt. Donald Montgomery said. "Any school district that provides full or partial transportation is going to have to look at reducing or eliminating it this year," he said.

Charter Oak's situation typifies the dilemma facing many districts. Charter Oak will suspend its bus service at the end of the semester.

About 700 students at Royal Oak Intermediate School in Covina will be affected, said J. Bonnie Bowman, the district's interim superintendent. The school board approved the cuts Aug. 28 but has only recently begun an all-out effort to publicize them in advance of the Jan. 25 cutoff. The changes were not implemented immediately because parents didn't have enough notice to arrange alternative transportation, said Robert Hoenig, the school board president. "We try to make the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," he said.

The district last August sliced more than $500,000 from its $22-million budget. Besides eliminating transportation, which saves the district $33,000, the cuts also affected the maintenance budget ($95,000), driver training ($64,000), the athletic program ($20,000) and four salaried positions. The district elected not to replace a school psychologist and reassigned three elementary reading specialists to fill classroom vacancies rather than hire new teachers. Those personnel moves saved about $200,000.

District officials said budget reductions became necessary for two reasons: Lottery proceeds were lower than state projections, and the state reduced the districts' cost-of-living increase from 4.76% to 3%. The lottery reduction alone cost the district $15 per student, or more than $85,000 this year.

Other districts have faced a similar pinch. State law requires only that school districts provide busing for special-education students--those with significant physical, mental or emotional handicaps.

Home-to-school transportation for other students is reimbursed by the state at a rate of only about 50% of the cost, district officials said, making the transportation budget ripe for the chopping block.

For that reason, the Monrovia district cut its least-used busing service, the one which takes high school students home in the afternoon. Other small districts, including San Marino, South Pasadena and Temple City, provide no home-to-school service whatsoever.

The Arcadia Unified School District charged families for bus service until it received a cease-and-desist order in November, 1988, from the state Department of Education. State courts have ruled that any transportation that local districts offer must be free, said Joanne Lowe, an attorney for the Department of Education.

A number of districts have joined a suit to overturn the ban against fees. Better to have a fee-for-use service than none at all, said Priscilla Brown, a San Francisco attorney who represents the consortium of school districts that filed suit.

In defiance of state directives, some consortium members continue to charge families for transportation, including the Las Virgenes district ($360 a year) and the Bonita Unified School District ($105 a year), which serves San Dimas and La Verne.

If the consortium loses in court, the districts may have to refund transportation fees collected this year, Lowe said.

To play it safe, Arcadia suspended its fee system. Instead, the district pumps in more than $150,000 a year from its general fund into transportation and has re-established walking distances, said Earl Davis, assistant superintendent for business services. Under the fee system, any district student could sign up for the bus.

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