Buses and budgets

By Sam Inglot

The Lansing School District starts reevaluating transportation services to save money

The process of trimming the Lansing School District’s budget is kicking off in the same place where roughly 5,500 students start their day: school buses.

“We’re looking at restructuring the whole transportation department system,” said Yvonne Caamal Canul, the district superintendent. “That’s one of the things we have to do in order to increase efficiency and decrease our fiscal obligations on some things.”

The district is in the early stages of evaluating bus routes and logistics of all of its elementary schools, said Sam Sinicropi, assistant superintendent of operations.

Transportation services eat up about $10 million of the district’s $168.5 million budget.

Approximately 7,500 students are eligible for transportation, Sinicropi said, of which about 5,500 take one of 60 bus routes every day.

Sinicropi said the district is also exploring partnering with the Capital Area Transportation Authority on some busing services, but no details were available.

He said he would bring the transportation recommendations to the superintendent and the Lansing Board of Education in April.

Transportation policy

Restructuring the transportation system may require policy changes. The Lansing Board of Education Policy Committee has been discussing the district’s legal obligations since early March.

The school district is not required to provide transportation to all students, said Ken Micklash, director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. State law says that the district must only provide transportation to special education students with certain transportation needs.

Micklash said if a district provides transportation, it has to provide it equally for grade levels. For example, a school district can provide transportation for elementary school students, but not for high school students. However, if the district provides transportation for elementary school students, it cannot restrict services to certain elementary level grades.

As for the rest of the general student population, “It’s not a right, it’s a privilege,” Caamal Canul said at a February Board of Education meeting.

Lansing’s school policy states that transportation will be provided to students who live at least one and half miles from their schools. Elementary school students are expected to be able to walk up to half a mile to a bus stop. Secondary school students are expected to go up to one mile.

If a district provides transportation, state law mandates that one and half miles is the maximum walking distance a child can be expected to travel to school. The district cannot push that limit any further.

However, the district’s massive reconfiguration of grade levels and buildings closures last year created some exceptions to the walking distance policy. Caamal Canul said the administration found that about a busload worth of young kids lived within the walking radius but had to cross major intersections to get to school. The district made an exception this year and has been transporting those kids as well, but at additional cost.

“To ask a 5-year old kid to cross MLK at 7:30 in the morning when it’s still dark out is just wrong,” Caamal Canul said.

One issue that the policy committee has discussed at length is transportation for the district’s four magnet or “specialty” schools. Magnet schools have a particular academic focus, like math and science or visual and performing arts. Students have to apply to magnet schools and are bused across the district to attend them. This beefs up costs for the district because students are not attending the schools closest to them.

“We spend a lot of money on our specialty school transportation, about half a million dollars,” Caamal Canul said. “We’re taking a look at that again.”

The four magnet schools in Lansing — Post Oak, STEM Academy, Pleasant View and Wexford Montessori — all used to get federal grant money to help pay for transportation, Caamal Canul said. That money stopped coming in three years ago.

The budget

The district’s November financial audit shows about $4.6 million in the coffers at the end of the school year, but Caamal Canul said that number would probably show some improvement when June rolls around.

“I think we’ll be in better shape by the end of the year than we were in November,” she said. “We’ve really kept on eye on it everyday.”

But even though hopes are high for slightly more cash by the end of the school year, the district needs to start trimming its spending, otherwise it could end up running nearly $10 million into the red next school year. Evaluating and possibly cutting back on transportation is just the beginning.

“We have already put in a 10 percent cut on things other than personnel services,” Caamal Canul said. “So that’s things like supplies, building budgets, copying machines — all the things that are not personnel related.”

There could also be cost savings through contract negotiations. The bus drivers’ contract is up for renewal this year, along with instructional assistants, teachers and administrators, Caamal Canul said. All of those contracts are in negotiations right now.

The Board of Education has until June 20 to finalize a budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.