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Ventura County

Kids Might Pay to Ride the Bus

Ventura County schools may add or raise fees to fend off projected state budget crunch. Other districts in region are scaling back routes.

May 10, 2003|Erika Hayasaki and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

More California students will be forced to pay for public transportation, carpool or walk to school next year because those yellow school buses won't be stopping in their neighborhoods.

In response to the state's budget crisis, some cash-starved school districts are scaling back on bus routes or eliminating rides altogether, while others are instituting or raising transportation fees.

School officials say cutting down on transportation costs helps save other popular programs, as well as jobs.

"We've tried very hard to keep our cuts out of the classroom," said Cindy Sabato, a spokeswoman for the 22,000-student Oceanside Unified School District in San Diego County, which recently eliminated busing for nearly 5,000 middle and high school students.

"We had to look somewhere and transportation is, unfortunately, not required by law," she said. "So we decided to take that route, rather than raise class sizes to 30 or 40, or eliminate instrumental music classes."

In Ventura County, some districts are considering implementing new bus fees or hiking existing ones. But school officials said they are waiting for the final state budget before making any major changes.

Officials in the Ventura Unified School District, for example, looked into creating a system where parents would pay $150 to $180 a year for each child to ride the bus, but are hoping to avoid such a tactic, said transportation manager Tony Briscoe.

"It's still on the shelf, waiting to see what the governor does," Briscoe said. "We do have some concerns, and we don't want it to affect attendance. We don't want to shoot ourselves in the foot."

Fees considered too high will cause many students to avoid using school buses, said Gary Mortimer, assistant superintendent for business services in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. At the same time, the district faces an estimated 5% increase in the cost of transportation districtwide because of projected state cuts. The same is true in nearby Simi Valley.

"It's a real delicate balance out there," Mortimer said.

Still, some parents worry that their children's safety may be at risk if they can't take a bus. And many students feel the change will be a big pain.

The 48,400-student Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County is considering getting rid of bus service for about 1,100 of the 1,800 high school students who ride daily, said David Smollar, a district spokesman.

Some of the remaining students have government-subsidized transportation because they live at Camp Pendleton. The rest attend Tesoro High School, which has no sidewalks along the three-mile stretch between the campus and the closest public bus stop.

Capistrano Valley High School sophomore Betta Pena, 15, and freshman Maricela Torres, 14, had to wait one day recently for a public bus to take them home to San Juan Capistrano because they had missed the school bus.

They winced at the thought of having to take the public bus every day.

"We usually have to wait for the first bus to go by anyway because it's so packed already," Pena shouted over the rush of cars behind her on Interstate 5. "It would take forever to catch the bus if there were hundreds more kids trying to get on the bus."

Capistrano Valley High School student C.J. Steinfeld, 15, said he would have to bum rides from friends because his Mission Viejo house is a mile from the nearest public bus stop.

His mother, Lynne Folks Steinfeld, said that ending bus service would harm the children who most need it.

"If you put that kind of obstacle in the way of getting to school, you're going to lose some of the kids who most need to be there," she said

In addition to possibly eliminating the high school routes, Smollar said, the district also may increase elementary and middle school bus fees, which run as high as $302 per student, or alter routes for the 11,400 students who rely on school bus transportation. Capistrano Unified has been charging students to ride the bus since 1992.

Audra Kephart, president of the Parent Teacher Assn. in the 26,000-student Vista Unified School District in San Diego County, said parents were outraged last year when board members voted to cut back on bus routes for a handful of elementary schools where most students live within a mile of campus. Parents staged a march and some took their children out of school in protest, she said.

"These kids were walking on streets that didn't have sidewalks. They were walking over tracks. And some of the kids had two-parent working families and were actually walking to school alone -- elementary kids," Kephart said.

The district, which is facing $9.5 million in state cuts out of a $190-million budget, is planning to eliminate middle school busing as well, Supt. Dave Cowles said. Nearly one-third of the district's students are bused, he said, adding that the state has put him in a "terrible situation."

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