Buttars: Ax high school bus, 12th grade
When times get tight, it's not unusual for schools to cut teachers, staff and activities.
But busing for high school students?
That's what at least one Utah lawmaker has in mind. And while many educators oppose getting rid of funding for high school busing, others say it's not such a crazy idea. Utah wouldn't be the first place in the country to make that change.
"You've got to think out of the box," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. "How many times have you seen a senior high bus go down the road and it's got three kids in it? A lot."
Buttars will likely present the idea, along with a proposal to phase out 12th grade, to the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee today as the group considers ways to cut school funding by as much as 5 percent next school year.
He said cutting funding for high school busing outside rural areas could save the state about $60 million. And phasing out 12th grade could save the state as much as $240 million, he said. He'd like to see an accelerated graduation system where most students would graduate after 11th grade and students who didn't have enough credits to do that might go on to a sort of remedial 12th grade.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who co-chairs the committee, said he's not sure how lawmakers will react to the idea of phasing out 12th grade. But he expects the committee will seriously consider the idea of no longer funding busing for high school students in densely populated areas.
"In hard times like this, it's good to look at what is absolutely essential for the education of children, and if high school kids could get to school in another way then we ought to be open to that," Stephenson said. "I drive past the high school parking lots, and in most cases it seems that lots of students are getting there in their own vehicles."
Now, high school students use district school buses to varying degrees.
In the Jordan District, about 44 percent of traditional high school students eligible for busing ride the bus. In Alpine, about 25 percent of high school students use the bus, and in Granite district, about 16 percent do so, officials in those districts said. In Davis, about 20 percent of high school students take the bus, said a district spokesman.
Last school year, the state gave districts about $75 million for busing students in all grades and districts paid about another $17 million to cover the full costs, said Murrell Martin, pupil transportation specialist at the State Office of Education. For this school year, the state has given districts $63 million.
Still, many educators say high school busing is necessary. State Superintendent Larry Shumway said students are more than 40 times safer in a bus than a private car, and ending high school busing would cause more traffic congestion and pollution.
Plus, he said, many kids don't have a way to get to school other than district buses.
About 30,000 Utah high school students now use high school buses, he said. Martin said districts have worked to bus students more efficiently by staggering school start times and changing routes, for example.
"I know we're trying to save money, but kids certainly learn better when they have a way to get to school," Shumway said.
Salt Lake City district Superintendent McKell Withers said even Salt Lake City doesn't have extensive enough public transportation to get kids to school without district buses. West High already uses almost only public transportation to get kids to school, but the district's other two traditional high schools still rely heavily on district buses. He said there's just not enough east-west public transportation to do away with buses at those two other schools.
"If you really don't want to be at school anyway and you really have no dependable, efficient way to get to school, what's the likelihood of more teenagers doing worse in school rather than better in school?" Withers said.
Melinda Colton, a Jordan spokeswoman, said she doesn't know how her district's high schools would accommodate more students wanting to park cars. Already, she said, many district high schools don't let sophomores park for space reasons.
But the idea of eliminating high school busing is not unheard of. It has been done before in other places.
Portland Public Schools, in Oregon, hasn't bused high school students for at least two decades, said Matt Shelby, a district spokesman. But he said the district is served by extensive public transportation and all students can ride city buses and light rail for free.
And Reynoldsburg City School District, a suburban Ohio district, just eliminated high school busing this school year to make ends meet. That district is served by very little public transportation, said Tricia Moore, district spokeswoman.
Moore said, so far, the biggest problem has been traffic congestion at the high school. She said the district ultimately decided to stagger start times for different grades to relieve some of that. And even in Utah, many charter schools, which are public schools, don't bus kids to and from school.
Still many parents are wary of the idea. Ranae Peck's twin 16-year-old boys drive to Cottonwood High, but she knows that's not the case for all students.
"There will be those kids and parents that would get there no matter what sacrifice they'd have to make, but I would think there are a whole lot that are kind of being pushed to their limit just getting to the bus to get here," said Peck, who's president of the school's PTSA. "I don't know if it's in their interest to make it so dang hard to come to school."
Buttars, however, believes it's an idea whose time has come. He said the main obstacle is fear of trying something that hasn't been done before.
The Tribune asked several Utah school districts how many of their high school students ride the bus to and from school. These percentages don't necessarily include special education students.
Davis School District » 19.8 percent
Granite School District » 16.3 percent
Salt Lake City District » 44.9 percent ride district buses; 25.1 percent ride UTA
Jordan School District » about 44 percent (of students eligible for busing)
Alpine School District » 24.9 percent