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Manteca Unified try a ticket to ride for one semester

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POSTED April 25, 2009 2:24 a.m.
It is time to rethink Manteca Unified’s proposal to slash $400,000 from the budget by increasing the minimum distance to bus students to and from school.

No one should debate the justification to slash busing costs by $400,000. That’s a given.

However, there is another solution that may get the district close to the same point.

The district now limits busing to kindergarten through third graders who live a mile or farther, fourth through sixth graders who are 1.5 miles or more, seventh and eighth graders who live 2 miles or more, and high school students who are 2.5 miles plus away. An exception on the high school distance was made for Lathrop High thanks to the only road leading to it being extremely narrow and especially treacherous in fog season

The change would accommodate kindergartner through eighth graders who live 1.25 miles more a way by providing bus transportation. The high school distance would remain the same with no exception for Lathrop High.

Several parents in families where both husband and wife commute over the Altamont said they’d be more than happy to pay for transportation as did a good number of Lathrop High parents.

The district early on decided this wasn’t an option because state law requires those who get free and reduced meals – roughly 52 percent of those who are bused – to not be charged if there is a transportation fee.

That’s fine. Why not, however, offer transportation for a fee for everyone else that is impacted and let those required to ride for free do so?

Assume that 800 of the 1,700 kids impacted don’t qualify for the free and reduced meals.

Offer bus tickets for 20 rides for $40. If all 800 of those kids’ parents opted to ride every day of school – 175 days – it would generate $280,000. There are obviously some issues with this approach. First, not everyone is going to pay $10 a week if they are given that option and would simply have their kid walk to school or get there in some other manner. Second, kids get sick so assuming they would ride 175 days is a bit optimistic.

However, if the district takes this approach for one semester, they can see exactly what the demand is and where it is. There is a legitimate safety concern in Lathrop. If parents are serious enough to make family budget decisions to pay for the bus ride and the numbers justify continuing it on a specific route such as for Lathrop High, then it should be continued. If an area such as Woodward Park doesn’t have the numbers, then the district should drop the bus service.

A trial semester would also give parents a clear understanding of what is involved. It also would give the school site parents clubs the chance to help organize car pools – which may by the ultimate and best way to go. The district could also work with the city to see if there was any way the fixed bus route could help address some parental concerns.

Assume the trial went for half a year. That means it would impact $200,000 of the targeted $400,000 annual savings. One semester with full participation of those who are eligible to pay would bring in $140,000 but realistically $100,000 is probably more reasonable.

So the real questions are this: Can the district afford not to save $100,000 for a semester to thoroughly explain more options and set the stage for other resolutions such as organized carpooling in place? Does the district staff have the moxie or the depth to undertake such an “experiment?”

 It is true that the district’s financial woes aren’t exactly new. You’d have to have been living on Pluto during the past year to not know the state as well as the economy is in rough waters. And, yes, there are more pressing cuts that are taking place much closer to the classroom.

At the end of the day, though, there is a real legitimate safety question. There are serious issues of having kids walking longer distances in fog and rain as well as on narrow roads in cases that they have no choice such as Lathrop High.

 The school board may have the luxury of trying a slightly different approach than was put before them since classified employees can be terminated or hours reduced a lot easier than teachers.

There is one caveat.

Should the May 19 election send the majority of the ballot measures down to defeat, it would be wrong for the school board to delay any cuts at that point. The end result of voter rejection of the measures means even less money – at least in the short run – for schools.
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