Last week the board voted unanimously to change our current system of discretionary busing. Busing is considered “discretionary” when we give it to areas that aren’t far enough away from school to be entitled to busing under state law. State law requires that we offer busing to K-8 students who live more than two miles from school and to high school students who live more than three miles from school. Our district has chosen to offer busing to other neighborhoods, too, often on the rationale that there were safety concerns that made walking to school difficult. The new policy is to focus discretionary busing on areas that face socioeconomic barriers to transportation. In other words, economically better-off areas will be less likely to qualify for discretionary busing.
There were several reasons for the change. Money is increasingly scarce, since the legislature has been stingy with school funding. Money for buses competes with many other priorities, including keeping class sizes manageable and addressing the proficiency gaps we’ve seen among more vulnerable student populations. It was also hard to identify consistent criteria for who would be entitled to discretionary busing under the safety rationale. In reality, the state’s idea of “walking distance” is unrealistic for many, many families, especially if their kids are in the very early grades. I doubt there are many kindergartners walking 1.8 miles to school. But we can’t possibly afford to give busing to all of those families, so there was an arbitrariness in providing discretionary busing to some neighborhoods but not others.
Although the issue has been discussed at several board meetings, the specific proposal we adopted appeared on the school board agenda just five days before we voted on it. At the meeting, I raised the idea that we should wait until the next meeting to vote on it, to give more of an opportunity for public input and for people to identify counterarguments. The full board did not appear receptive to that idea, and I didn’t push it. In retrospect, I wish I had made a formal motion to that effect, but in the end, I strongly suspect the two weeks wouldn’t have changed anyone’s vote (mine included).
The proposal that we adopted states, “Neighborhoods whose top priority is to receive a bus should provide this input into the Elementary Attendance Zone review.” I think the idea behind that sentence is that if we’re busing a particular neighborhood anyway, we may as well use that busing to meet our other goals—such as making the best use of available capacity or trying to achieve “balance” socioeconomically and in terms of English-language learner and special-education status. Personally, I have my doubts about spending money on busing to pursue that kind of balancing. That said, I can at least see the logic of saying that neighborhoods that receive discretionary busing should have to be flexible about which school they end up at.
Though the new policy will result in cuts to some discretionary busing, we don’t yet know exactly who will lose their busing. It might be possible to continue to serve some neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise qualify under the new policy simply because there is room for them on buses that we’ll be running anyway. All of those decisions can be made, I assume, only after the board has settled the new elementary school boundaries, which we hope to do by May of this year.