State considers allowing local bus fees
By Tony Graf email@example.com April 30, 2012 8:52PM
Students peer from their bus during dismissal at Eisenhower Academy Wednesday, April 25, 2012, at 406 Burke Drive in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 2, 2012 8:05AM
There are no free rides. And that adage might never have been truer than now.
Faced with a budget crisis in Springfield, state education officials are considering letting schools charge for bus service.
If that proposal becomes a reality, it would make matters difficult for Will County families who need it the most, local schools say.
“If this is passed, it would create a huge burden on our district and our families,” said Sandy Zalewski, spokeswoman for the Joliet Grade School District. “However, we really can’t speculate on what they’re planning. Right now, it’s just discussion, and we continue to monitor the situation.”
The Joliet district serves around 11,000 students, providing bus service to more than 60 percent of those children.
The district provides bus service to 5,673 regular education students and 1,061 special education students, Zalewski said.
The State Board of Education was discussing the issue of bus transportation last week. However, a proposal would have to be approved by state legislators before it could take effect.
One proposal would change the way Illinois distributes money for student transportation, and another would let schools charge for bus service.
Right now, the state reimburses school districts for a fixed percentage of whatever they spend on transportation. Under the new proposal, officials would determine the average statewide costs of getting students to and from school. Then, districts would be reimbursed for their costs up to that average level. That would encourage districts that spend more than average to find ways of cutting costs.
As part of this approach, officials might eliminate the requirement that districts provide free transportation for students — which would allow some schools to charge a fee to recoup costs above the state average.
In theory, a district could even eliminate buses entirely, though state board spokesman Matt Vanover said that would be unlikely.
At Lockport Township High School, leaders do not know the implications of the proposal because they have not yet studied the matter, said Kimberly Brehm, spokeswoman for the district.
“We feel that the kids who need it the most may find this most difficult,” Brehm said. “The students who qualify for the free lunch would also qualify for the waiver of fees, including transportation costs. In those cases, the cost of busing would fall 100 percent on the local taxpayers.”
Transportation costs are a significant expenditure on the state and local level.
Last year, Lockport Township High School in total spent $2 million on regular education transportation, and
$1.3 million on special education transportation, Brehm said.