Manteca Unified is eliminating to and from school bus service for all students except for those enrolled in special education.
The school board was essentially backed into a corner by COVID-19 to drop busing for the school year starting Aug. 6 for all non-special education students.
The decision Tuesday was a nod to Centers for Disease Control guidelines that school districts in California are required to implement that would increase busing costs from $6 million a year to roughly $30 million. The board would have had to eliminate virtually all spending except for salaries as well as benefits for all district employees to cover the additional cost. The school district has a general fund budget of $256 million of which roughly 85 percent goes to cover salaries, benefits, and retirement costs for nearly 1,100 teachers and 2,200 part-time and full-time support workers from paraprofessionals and custodian staff to bus drivers and others. That 85 percent staff cost is typical for California public schools.
The school board will revisit busing at the end of the school year. However, it is highly unlikely it will be restored as long as COVID-19 is an issue. That’s due to the CDC guidelines imposing 3-foot separation between passengers would require the district’s large capacity buses designed for 84 passengers to be capped at 24 riders. The smaller buses used primarily for special education routes that carry 20 will only be allowed 8 maximum on board.
While the school year starts with distance learning on Aug. 6, the plan as soon as conditions allow it will bring a maximum of 17 students at a time into classrooms for instruction with appropriate social distancing and COVID-19 protocols.
That means 1,200 students who are bused will need to find other ways to get to and from school.
The district is planning to reach out to Manteca Transit and Regional Transit to see if some of those students can be accommodated on public transportation. Community Outreach coordinator Victoria Brunn indicated the district is also likely to explore the possibility of helping put in place a ride sharing program.
The district drastically reduced to and from school busing in 2010 due to severe state budget cuts triggered by the mortgage crisis that led to the Great Recession. The district at that time went to only busing elementary students that resided more than a mile from campus as well as high school students living more than 1½ miles from their school.
The majority of the 1,200 students that will need to find a way to get to school are in the rural areas of the district primarily south, north, and west of Manteca as well as high school students in the French Camp area. There are students, however in certain parts of east Manteca and in the southwest part of the city that reside outside of the no bus zones in place since 2010.
The district will not be saving any money by dropping busing for 1,200 students. Under CDC guidelines it may take the entire busing budget that was in place and then some to transport the 465 special education students they are mandated by the state to bus.
That’s because in order to bus all of the special education students to school on time with social distancing in place it will requiring pressing all of the large buses into service.
“If we’re lucky the $6 million will cover our costs (for special education busing),” noted Manteca Unified Chief Business Officer Jacqui Breitenbucher.
The district is examining all the transportation needs of special education students to determine those needing wheelchair access that only the smaller buses have.
Those that can ride the larger buses will do so.
But there is more to the issue than just whether riders are in wheelchairs.
Special education busing must be door to door. That means the bus pulls up to a student’s house to pick them up and drop them off. That significantly increases the time — and cost — to operate a bus route.
Complicating it further is the school district cannot run a full size bus down a cul-de-sac or a dead-end street due to the door-to-door requirement and the need to turn the bus around. That means staff will need to assign students to buses and develop routes that take into account those limitations.
Manteca, Lathrop, and Weston Ranch residents will have 84-passenger buses going down neighborhood streets where special education students live twice a day when students are allowed back in campuses.
Charging for bus service is
impractical, extremely costly
The district dismissed the idea of charging for bus service for two reasons — the cost and what will now be non-existent capacity.
The existing bus fleet will now be needed simply to meet the special education busing mandate.
Even if there were buses available or second runs were done in some form or another, the cost to do so based on CDC guidelines substantially reducing capacity would soar past $12,000 a year per student. That translates into a $70 a charge per day for each student.
Before the COVID-19 changed the ground rules it cost more than $3,500 for to and from busing for non-special education students. To recoup 100 percent of the cost the district would have had to charge $20 a day.
The district in the past had looked at charging for bus service for regular K-12 students but opted not to do so.
School districts do not receive funding from the state for bus service. That means the money to cover transportation needs to come from the same pie that pays for teachers, classroom support and supplies/equipment, utilities, maintenance, and support services.
The board Tuesday did not explore what would happen if sports resume in January under the plan laid out by the California Interscholastic Federation. The district has provided bus service to away games in the past. Depending upon the school district such costs are covered by the student body from gate receipts, the district’s general fund, or athletes who are charged fees to cover part or all of the costs.
Under the CDC rules, it would require at least four buses to transport a typical varsity football team, coaches and students that assist with the team.
Some districts in recent years have done away with away transportation for sports. That creates an entirely new set of issues such as how students that do not have parents available to drive them to games. The district would need to consider liability and student safety issues should they try and intervene with a non-school bus solution by arranging carpools.
It could open the door for background checks of drivers and making sure they are safe drivers without a record who are insured.
The district will have other busing related challenges.
Through retirements and the fact there are bus drivers over 65 years of age that are in the high risk group for COVID-19, the district is short between 8 and 10 drivers. A shortage of qualified drivers has been created in part because the California Highway Patrol has not been certifying school bus drivers since the pandemic began in March.
In addition to providing to and from school busing for special education students districts are required to bus homeless students as well as defined by law. The number of homeless students fluxes for 300 to 900 students.
Last school year 1 out of 12 of the district’s 24,000 students were bused at a cost of $6 million. In the upcoming school year 1 out of 48 students will be bused at a cost most likely to succeed $6 million.
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