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Half-Empty School Buses On Gravel Roads, Transportation Costs Are Consuming Rural School Budgets

Flickr / wabisabi2015

Every school day at 7:30 am, fifth-grader Ava Perrett catches the first of two bright yellow buses that drive her to the Greene County Intermediate School in Grand Junction.

Due to a 2014 consolidation, the Greene County Community School District is the state’s eighth largest in geographic size. It spans 388 square miles. So it’s a good thing Ava says she usually doesn’t mind riding the bus.

“But sometimes it takes a while,” she says. “When we’re switching buses it gets really cold out when we’re waiting for the buses.”

Iowa law stipulates that elementary kids spend no more than 60 minutes on a one-way bus ride, and Greene County has school buildings located in a couple different towns. To cover all 388 square miles and stay within those 60 minutes, kids change buses in one of three cities.

On both the buses Ava rides there are lots of open seats, so her mornings can be subdued.

“I like getting late homework done on the buses, I like watching the scenery. And I like, you know, being able to sit down and read,” Ava says.

All these half-empty buses are costing Greene County a lot of money.

According to data from the Iowa Department of Education, the state median for what districts spend on transportation per pupil is $379.98. Last year Greene County paid $586.41 per pupil, which is $206.43 more than the state median. When you multiply $206.43 by the total number of students in the district, Greene County would have had an additional $268,111.28 available last year, if not for higher transportation costs.

A massive disparity exists in Iowa’s K-12 education system. Two school districts that are comparable in geographic size may differ by hundreds of thousands of dollars in what they spend on busing. And the more money spent just getting kids in the door, the less there is for salaries, text books and pretty much everything else.

In urban districts, transportation costs are often much lower per student. The Des Moines Independent School District, Iowa’s largest, spent $193 below the state median per pupil on transportation during the 2015-2016 school year. This comes out to an additional $6 million. And that’s money that is available to spend on other district needs.

Greene County Superintendent Tim Christensen says if he had that extra quarter million dollars a year, he could hire more teachers, which would allow him to reduce class sizes and offer more electives.   

“Equity for students across Iowa is extremely important when we’re trying to provide the best education,” says Christensen. “[It] needs to be equalized to make sure that we’ve got the same opportunities as everyone else.”

What’s going on in Greene County is going on all over the state. Especially in rural school districts where populations are shrinking, and districts are dissolving or consolidating at a clip of a least a couple a year.

The state’s funding formula is primarily to blame for this inequality. Each district’s general fund budget receives a set amount per student from the state. For the 2016-2017 school year the sum was $6,591. In addition to transportation costs, a district’s general fund must also budget for salaries, text books, technology, and even capital improvements.   

But it's not all the state's fault. School districts also have a responsibility to keep transportation costs low, and some do a better job than others. 

Sometimes when rural districts consolidate, schools are placed different towns. This may be done to satisfy community members who are concerned about the cultural or economic impact a school closing might create. But spreading out attendance centers also spreads thin budgets that are already operating on tight margins.

In part to keep transportation costs in check, Greene County is  moving all K-12 classes to the city of Jefferson, which is the center of the district and the county seat. That means the intermediate school Ava Perrett attends in Grand Junction is closing. The fourth grade class will move to the elementary school, while fifth and sixth graders will become middle schoolers. 

“A lot of people very passionate about not wanting the facility to close, and I understand that," says Superintendent Christensen of the choice to close the Grand Junction school. “You got to make difficult decisions when resources are limited.”

Christensen says moving all the schools to one town will save roughly $58,000 in transportation costs alone, but this may only be a temporary fix. Like much of rural Iowa, Greene County’s population has been declining for more than a century and that’s reflected in the district’s enrollment. In the 2016-2017 school year, there were 49 fewer pupils from the previous year. As a result, the school district will receive less money from the state, though it covers the same territory. 

A survey of 24 Iowa school districts found there are other ways to cut transportation costs besides having all attendance centers located in the same town. In some districts bus drivers are paid up to $33 an hour, while in others the rate is less than $20. Districts might also be able to buy fuel from a co-op, arrange a discount with a local gas station, or purchase fuel in bulk.

Wear and tear on buses is also a major factor that’s harder to mitigate in rural Iowa. Greene County Transportation Director Wayne Hougham says the miles driven on gravel roads drive up maintenance costs and shorten a bus’s life span.

Credit Sarah Boden/IPR File
Sarah Boden/IPR File

“The ruts and stuff, and the mud can be like a washboard, and they start bouncing and stuff, and that’s hard on a bus,” he says. “They’re not meant to take a beating for so long as what we try to put them through.”

He says it would also be helpful if the state would allow students to be on buses for longer than an hour, but it’s not likely the law will change anytime soon.

It’s hard to say if school transportation funding inequality in Iowa will ever be resolved. In the past 14 legislative sessions, more than two dozen bills have been introduced at Iowa statehouse that attempt to bring funding equality to this issue.

This spring the issue looked like it was gaining serious momentum after a bill unanimously passed the Senate that would have created supplemental weighting formula based on a district’s historic transportation costs. But declining tax revenue and a $131 million budget shortfall prevented the legislation from being voted on by the House.

In the meantime, small towns continue to lose population, which causes rural school districts to consolidate and grow in geographic size. And this problem will likely get worse.

Credit Krista Johnson/Iowa Watch
School buses in Davenport.

This project, Consolidation Costs for Iowa Schools, is a collaboration between Iowa Public Radio and Iowa Watch, The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.  Here's a link to the Iowa Watch story on this topic,  by Krista Johnson.