Thousands more California students will have to find their own way to school this fall, as districts slash bus routes to cope with budget shortfalls and high fuel costs.
Critics worry that the cuts will increase traffic around schools, shift costs to parents already struggling with rising gas prices and prompt more absenteeism, hurting students' academic achievement. But paramount is the fear that the reductions will endanger students as more walk or drive to school.
"All the parents, we've been scrambling to try to work out car pools," said Wayne Tate, whose second-grader's bus to Castille Elementary, two miles from their home in Mission Viejo, was eliminated. "For somebody that young, that's a pretty long way to walk or ride a bike. All you need is one kid getting hit to realize that maybe the [savings] wasn't worth it."
Districts say they have no choice.
"It's a horribly difficult decision," said Larry Brown, assistant superintendent of business services at Moorpark Unified School District in Ventura County, which is eliminating bus rides for its 2,400 high school students. "It's a decision no one wants to make."
Unlike most other states, California does not require districts to provide home-to-school transportation except in limited circumstances. Fewer than 15% of the state's 6.3 million students ride school buses, according to a 2007 report by the state auditor's office. Los Angeles Unified is among districts that do not offer the service for most students.
A year's worth of bus service costs an average of nearly $1,400 per student in urban districts and more than $900 per rural pupil, according to the state auditor's report. The state provides less than half of the $1.1 billion that districts spend annually on transportation. To make up the rest, districts dip into their general fund, the same pot of money that pays for smaller class sizes, teacher salaries and textbooks. Many districts also require parents to buy bus passes that can cost hundreds of dollars annually per child.
But this year, in districts across the state, this method no longer works. State education leaders report that more districts are reducing or eliminating bus service, although no agency has a complete tally.
In Poway Unified School District near San Diego, where parents pay $399 for an annual bus pass, several hazardous conditions that once qualified students for bus service -- among them living near a busy intersection or lacking a safe path or sidewalk to school -- no longer are considered. In addition, only routes that draw at least 50 paying riders will operate. The change leaves as many as 1,600 students of all ages without rides.
"It's gotten to the point where we could not continue to do what we have historically done," said Tim Purvis, the district's director of transportation, who budgeted $700,000 for fuel last school year and ended up spending $1.1 million. "I have 26 years of experience in this business, and I've never seen such an erratic year for fuel increases."
In response, private shuttle companies are offering to ferry students to school -- for $400 a month. Purvis predicted that most of the students without bus service would be driven to school in family cars or neighborhood car pools. "School loading/unloading zones are going to be a mess," he said.
They also will be significantly more dangerous, according to Mike Martin, a spokesman for the American School Bus Council trade group.
"School buses are . . . the safest way for kids to get to and from school, bar none," he said.
About 800 children are killed and 152,000 are injured annually during school travel hours; 2% of the deaths and 4% of the injuries involve school buses, according to a 2002 study by the National Research Council. The rest occur when children are walking or bicycling to school, or in family cars, particularly if a teenager is driving.
Extra cars on the roads are also prompting at least one city to threaten to sue a school district over its bus program reductions.
The Capistrano Unified School District in south Orange County eliminated 44 of its 62 bus routes, saving $3.5 million annually and cutting service for 5,000 students who had transportation last year, including Tate's youngest son.
City leaders in surrounding communities are threatening to sue, arguing that the district failed to consider the traffic, noise and pollution implications of its decision.
"The school district, in making those reductions, is going to cause an impact on our students and on our neighborhoods," Mission Viejo Mayor Trish Kelley said.
Critics also are concerned about the long-term effect of the reductions on academic achievement. State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell fears that less bus service will mean lower school attendance, particularly for families struggling economically.