School Beat: Public School Transportation Changes

by Lisa Schiff on February 24, 2011

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has been living with an ancient public school transportation system, designed decades ago to support the original Consent Decree meant to achieve racial and ethnic diversity among our schools. That transit system has been out of sync with assignment systems for years, and if low ridership numbers indicate anything, is no longer effective, but is certainly expensive.

In light of new strategic goals, the new assignment system, and new budget realities, the Board of Education (BOE) accepted a resolution on December 14, 2010 to make changes in our public school transportation system. The prioritized uses for school transportation as laid out in this document are:

1. Support choice in school assignment as a tactic for creating diverse learning environments.

2. Support equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students.

3. Provide limited school bus transportation to support reasonable access for attendance area residents to their attendance areas school.

4. To support the middle school assignment process outlined in P5101, provide limited transportation for middle school students in cases where a middle school attendance area is not reasonably accessible to the middle school, taking into account factors including the availability of reasonable MUNI routes.

5. Transportation is not contemplated for general education high school students, and/or will only be considered when the Superintendent determines it is necessary to provide equitable access and reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.

6. Support the District’s vision for after school services.

7. Minimize the use of unrestricted general fund budget contributions for general education school bus transportation.”

The first pass at a proposed revised transportation system was presented to the Committee of the Whole of the BOE on February 1st. It offers a phased vision of how to enact a needed cut of almost 50% of transportation expenses by the 2013-2014 school year in order to reduce the use of unrestricted funds so that they can be used elsewhere. This means going from a transportation budget of about $6 million to one that is just under $3.5 million.

This plan (presented in PowerPoint but available in a slightly more condensed form in a FAQ) is what BOE members are mulling over and what the community is currently being asked to comment on. Throughout February, people can complete a survey about the proposal or fill out a paper feedback form and return it to the office at your school, drop it off at the SFUSD office at 555 Franklin, or fax it in.

The information in the PowerPoint presentation of the plan is clear, important for us all to grasp and startling, particularly the budget numbers and particularly in light of the recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office about where cuts should come if taxes are extended. Slide 6 of the presentation details where the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) gets funding for school transportation. Currently $2.17 million of the total of approximately $6 million comes for state funds restricted to that use. In other words, one-third of our transportation funding is coming from the state of California.

Slide 8 of the transportation plan presentation enumerates the assumptions of the proposed plan, one of which is that targeted state funding will continue. That assumption may be a risky one, as that very pool of money is one of the specific areas the LAO suggested eliminating in the no-tax-extension scenario.

No matter what we think about the currently proposal then, it may need to be revised wholesale depending upon 1) whether the special election is allowed to go forward and 2) whether voters support extending current tax measures. If the answer to either of those questions is no, then we would be dealing with an entirely different financial reality, which might in turn require an entirely different plan.

That uncertainty suggests that the proposed transportation plan should be read as an analysis of the existing transportation system, just as much as it should be reviewed as a set of specific actions that could be enacted in a particular order. The presentation is rich in data, from an overview level to the very detailed. For instance, according to slide 6 of the report, it turns out that there are only just over 3500 general education student riders of our school buses (3,300 K5 riders and 358 middle school riders), bringing the cost per student rider to about $1,640.

Those figures are surprising — the number of riders is extremely low, and the cost seems very high. In better budget times, that could be interpreted as an opportunity to increase ridership and reduce the cost per student, even if overall costs were high. Such an option would provide another strategy for addressing the strategic goals of providing better access to programs and schools across the City. But these aren’t better budget times, not by a long shot, and so the choices we’re looking at are how to reduce existing costs, with the least harm to students.

It’s tempting to look at that $1,640 figure and think what a bargain a year’s worth of Fast Passes would be for at least the majority of middle school riders. From there it’s an easy mental leap to imagine a MUNI-SFUSD partnership that would ensure a sufficient number of busses at the right times on the right lines to support the transportation of those students. It’s certainly something that should be explored, because logically, a great efficiency and benefit to our students, our district and our city are to be found in such a plan.

But the experienced MUNI rider in each of us sounds a cautionary warning about the reliability of our public transit system, and whether in the end we would be doing our students more of a disservice by relying on MUNI to get them to school on time. That is a sad commentary on all things transit, and one that points to future room for growth, but indicates that short-term solutions in that corner may not be realistic.

In that short-term, there is no choice but to seriously offer feedback on the proposed plan, especially given the transportation funding insecurities. The proposed changes are dramatic, including the elimination of bus service to eleven elementary schools for this fall and 20 more by 2013, based on criteria (slide 18) including the number of students using the service, whether or not those students are in low test score areas, and the degree to which the route serves afterschool programs.

There isn’t much hopeful here, except maybe that these reductions can serve as one more story to use in convincing others to maintain our current level of taxes come the June special election.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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