Budget Cuts Result in Reduced School Bus Services

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday June 26, 2009 - 02:27:00 PM

State budget cuts will force more parents to take responsibility for dropping off and picking up their children from Berkeley’s public elementary schools starting in August. 

The Berkeley Board of Education Wednesday unanimously approved the extension of walk-boundary perimeters in the district, which will reduce bus services and prompt more students to walk, bike or be driven to school. 

Only students who live outside a 1.5-mile radius of a Berkeley Unified elementary school will be allowed to ride bus in the new academic year. 

The change will not affect middle or high school students because—with the exception of special education students—the district does not provide them with transportation services. 

The new walk-boundary will increase the existing walk-boundary—established in 1995—by half a mile.  

District Superintendent Bill Huyett said there was no cause for alarm yet. 

“It’s one of the small things that comes with the budget cuts,” he said. “Many districts have completely dropped transportation. Berkeley Unified did not have to take such drastic measures.” 

Huyett said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing a 65 percent cut in transportation funds while the state Legislature is proposing a 20 percent cut. 

“We have to plan on the 65 percent cut,” Huyett said. “We are subsidizing transportation to a great extent. The state will not pay.” 

On May 27, the school board approved Huyett’s recommendation for the district’s 2009-2010 budget reductions, including laying off two bus drivers. 

The district’s Transportation Manager Bernadette Cormier told the board that data from 2008-09 showed that the loss of the two drivers would impact transportation services, thereby making it necessary for the district to extend the walk-boundary. 

Approximately 1,700 of the district’s 9,000 students use the district’s school buses. The cuts to transportation will result in a savings of $184,076 for Berkeley Unified. 

It is estimated that 400 children in the district's 11 elementary schools will be affected by the increase in the walk-boundary. 

“These are choices none of us want to make, but we are in a tight budget year and every program has been impacted,” said board director John Selawsky. 

Berkeley Unified is divided into four geographic zones. The district often accommodates students who live in one zone but attend school in another if they request it, if there is capacity, and if it doesn’t affect the timing or cost structure of the routes. The reconfiguration of the walk-boundary would mean that potentially 48 “out-of-zone” students would be excluded from bus stop assignments. 

Bussing for private after-school programs may have to be reduced or eliminated, Cormier said, explaining that the district was taking a careful look over the next three weeks at how the routes would shape up. 

“If we have to reconstruct our boundaries, we might have to be a little tighter with these programs,” Cormier said. 

Berkeley Unified currently provides bus services, at no additional cost, for six to eight private after-school programs which fall along the district's regular routes. 

School Board President Nancy Riddle suggested that given the cuts to the transportation program, the district might consider charging families for transporting their children to non-public after-school programs. Board Vice President Karen Hemphill stressed the importance of having a district-run after-school program at every elementary school, which she said provided parents with an alternative. 

Cormier told the Daily Planet that in a difficult budget climate, it was not unusual for school districts to charge students for transportation services to programs outside the district's jurisdiction. 

She said the district’s transportation department was still working on what specific routes would be affected by the cuts based on the 2009-10 data. Her staff will collaborate with the district’s communications team to inform families likely to be impacted by the service reductions. 

The schools, Cormier said, would work with Alameda County’s Safe Routes to School program to address the impact of the changes on traffic safety and street crossings. 

At present, most bus stops at the Berkeley elementary schools are located within certain neighborhood areas bound by busy streets. District staff make every attempt to avoid having students walk through heavy traffic while walking to these stops, Cormier said. 

Additionally, students who live on the boundary of the current one-mile radius are allowed to ride the bus if they cite safety reasons for walking to school. They are picked up from bus stops situated closest to their residences. The district will continue to consider these requests for the new 1.5-mile walk-boundary, Cormier said. 

The district, Cormier said, would work with Safe Routes to School and the City of Berkeley’s Injury Prevention Division to address traffic flow near the affected schools and provide resources on alternative traveling arrangements to parents. 

At its June 10 meeting, the school board approved the launch of a traffic safety campaign to address reduction in congestion, traffic, noise and pollution around Berkeley’s public schools and promote walking and biking and pedestrian safety in classrooms as well as among parents. 

The campaign will also address such issues as placement of crossing guards and traffic engineering upgrades.  

The push for bicycle and pedestrian safety was in response to a spike in pedestrian accidents in the district during the spring, the most serious of which led to the death of LeConte Elementary School kindergartener Zachary Michael Cruz.