Cost of school choice soars
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Before Pinellas County School Board members approved the controversial school choice plan 18 months ago, they heard a worrisome prediction: To make the plan work, students might have to ride two buses to school, switching at hubs like air travelers.
On Friday, board members found out hubs are dead just months before parents start selecting which schools they want their children to attend when choice begins in 2003. There's no place to put the hubs. And they would mean excruciatingly long bus rides and pose a supervision nightmare.
But board members also learned that the options that survived will come with huge price tags.
One plan would push operating costs up by $8.53-million to $8.86-million annually; a second option would increase costs by $7.49-million to $7.77-million.
Board member Jane Gallucci said the cost estimates -- higher than the $6.2-million rise originally predicted -- "blew my socks off."
"I am going through a mid-choice crisis," Gallucci said. "Do I want to put $7-million into buses or do I want to put $7-million into kids? Let's go back and think it through and make sure it is the right thing."
The first option is to keep service as it is. A bus would pick up all the kids in the neighborhood who attend the same school. That could mean several buses running through the community if kids have different destinations. That option could raise bus operating costs by at least $8.53-million.
Under a second option, a single bus would pick up all the elementary school kids in a neighborhood and drop them off at the different schools they attend. Other buses would pick up middle and high school students. Terry Palmer, bus chief for the school district, said most buses would stop at only two schools.
This option could drive up annual operating costs by at least $7.49-million. Palmer estimated that kids could ride the bus five to 10 minutes longer than they do now. Some school opening and closing times might have to be adjusted.
Under both options, some kids could have a longer walk to the bus stop.
The proposals are based on a survey that was filled out by only half the district's parents and that will be three years old when choice starts. District officials say they don't know how parents will choose schools this fall for the 2003-2004 school year.
"It really is a refined estimate based on a survey with really different response rates as you go across the district," Palmer said. "But overall, it's pretty good news."
Board members said they were "relieved" and "overjoyed" that hubs are out of the picture, but they are concerned by the cost estimates for the two remaining options. A reserve fund has $17.5-million but that won't go far.
Four members of the seven-person board said Friday that the cost of the two options disappointed them. They all asked: Where is the school system going to get the money?
Still, they said they will continue to support choice.
"We're not putting it into buses," Nancy Bostock said. "We're putting it into getting kids to their schools of choice. It's all related to education."
Board members have known for years that choice busing would be expensive. Part of the reason the numbers are growing, Palmer said, is that salaries for bus drivers are increasing. The new system would require more than 200 new drivers.
Both options would require about 200 more routes without a corresponding increase in the number of riders. That inefficiency could cost the district some state funding.
The district also will need more buses, but Palmer said he doesn't yet know how many. As part of its regular replacement cycle, the district will spend $3.6-million next year on 54 buses. Some buses that were going to be retired will be used longer.
Palmer said he will have a better estimate when the transportation plan is approved and parents begin making school choices.
The district also has budgeted $11.8-million to expand and improve its bus compounds.
At a workshop Tuesday, board members will discuss Palmer's recommendations and myriad details of the choice plan.
The choice plan will begin in fall 2003, but parents will begin making their choices this fall. Under choice, the district will be divided into attendance areas. Families will fill out applications, naming several schools in their area that would meet their children's needs.
During the first four years of choice, no school can enroll more than 42 percent African-American students. Based on the racial makeup of the area, there also will be a minimum number of African-American students a school must attract.
When choice begins, students will be able to finish at the school they are attending. Students who were enrolled at the end of the 2000-2001 school year and haven't moved will be able to finish the elementary, middle and high school track they have been zoned to attend.
Based on the district's best estimates, choice busing won't be cheap even if most families stay put.
Say a small percentage of students in each area choose a school clear across the zone. The district would have to provide buses to get those kids to school. In other words, it only takes one student to force the district to add a whole bus.
Based on recent history, some schools will draw more African-American students than the court allows. Some schools likely won't draw enough. Buses will have to correct those imbalances.
Some students are grandfathered into schools outside their attendance area and will initially qualify for transportation. Some students switch school mid year, going from walking to riding a bus. Some magnet students and special education students also get bus service, and the district is adding transportation for fundamental school students, too.
Chrisshun Cox doesn't understand how the district can come up with an efficient, easy-to-understand system. In her St. Petersburg neighborhood, kids go to numerous elementary, middle and high schools that start at different times.
Any changes, she said, would further confuse parents already confused by the choice plan.
"The bus system we're already using, we're used to it," Cox said. "When they go and start changing things, which they have already done, it's going to create ripples. It's going to be ugly."
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