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Rural schools struggle to pay for transportation

Some students near Bayfield have to take a wind sled across a frozen bay to school. Children riding to class in the western Dubuque, Iowa, district are often in transit for an hour. School buses in Minnesota's largest school district, in St. Louis County, put on more than 1 million miles a year.

The logistics of getting children to school in sprawling or remote districts can be dizzying - and expensive.

Superintendents in the rural Midwest say that bringing children to school costs far more than state transportation aid and siphons money that could go to classroom instruction. With some facing declining enrollment, it's even tougher to cover the expense.

"I think we're doing things very efficiently here, but it's just a huge challenge when we touch the Canada border and we go all the way to Duluth," said St. Louis County Superintendent Steven Sallee. "The vast number of miles that we put on (buses) every year tends to be overwhelming

In Minnesota, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, introduced a bill this month that would funnel about $3 million to the hardest-hit districts in Minnesota, including St. Louis County, Bemidji and Grand Rapids, to offset the gap in state transportation money. Rural school superintendents have called for action in testimony at the statehouse in recent years, to little effect.

The lawmaker said he originally sought more than $23 million in transportation funding for many districts but couldn't find broader support for such spending. The bill is awaiting action in the education finance committee, which will decide whether to include it in the state budget.

"Districts who are making money off the (school funding) formula bring more votes to the table than those who don't," he said. But, he added, "Let's get our foot in the door and do something."

Minnesota requires that districts provide transportation for all elementary students who live at least 1 mile away from school, and all secondary students who live at least 2 miles away. The state education formula distributes transportation aid based on the number of students, rather than the miles they travel and the number that actually use the bus system.

The rural districts' struggles are not because the state doesn't have enough money to pay. State records for the 2013 fiscal year, the most recent available, show that Minnesota gave $30 million more to its 446 school districts than they said transportation cost them.

Districts aren't required to spend all their transportation aid on buses and diesel fuel; many shift the money to other areas. Nearly 58 percent received more in state transportation aid than their actual expenses — in the case of Minneapolis Public Schools, $2.8 million more. It's $4.8 million in St. Paul.

On the other end, districts with the largest transportation funding gaps are disproportionately outstate, with Forest Lake Area Schools dipping $1 million into its general education fund to pay for students to get to class. Bemidji's deficit is the second highest, at $875,936; St. Louis County is close behind, with $673,186.

Throughout Minnesota, 189 districts have a total deficit of $23 million.

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent James Hess, who recently testified before lawmakers on the matter, said the district is 828 square miles, with nearly 80 bus routes transporting more than 5,000 students.

"If we were in Minneapolis-St. Paul, we could hand out a bus token," Hess said. "You don't have any metro transit in Bemidji; you don't have it in Blackduck or Bagley."

Hess said the district loses about 14 teachers a year, and he can't pay to keep them because he's spending money on transportation. Teaching and textbooks are also getting short shrift, according to Hess.

Fewer schools, more miles

In Iowa, school consolidations led to fewer districts spread out over many more miles. The state's system of distributing aid to schools does not account for their varying transportation costs. All districts receive $6,366 per student for education, according to Jeff Berger, the deputy director of the Department of Education. He noted that some districts spend a half-percent of their budget on busing kids; others spend as much as 10 percent.

It doesn't help that 60 percent of Iowa's districts face declining enrollment.

"That is an inequity that is certainly there in Iowa," he said. "Complaints are constant on the issue, and we have all identified that it's a problem."

The western Dubuque district is among the hardest hit. Superintendent Jeff Corkery said the district is half the size of Rhode Island, with buses traveling about 45 routes and 4,500 miles a day. In his district of 3,200 students, transportation costs $700 per pupil - twice the state average.

He said they've had to spend an extra $1 million over the past six years because of the lack of state funding.

"How much money extra do we have to spend for transportation vs. what we could put into education - whether it be teachers, equipment, those types of things?" Corkery asked.

The problem has attracted a lot of discussion in Iowa, but legislative proposals have stalled in recent months. Some bills have included millions more in state funding for such districts; one gave districts authority to ask property taxpayers to chip in more for school transportation. The Iowa Association of School Boards has listed improving transportation funding as a legislative priority for the year.

In Wisconsin, the budget Gov. Scott Walker proposed in late January sought to address the imbalance, bumping up aid for rural districts where students travel long distances. The move was in line with a legislative task force last year that studied problems with rural school transportation.

But Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, noted that other cuts in general school funding will cancel out any gains.

"We have seen over the last number of years a pretty dramatic decline in student opportunities in rural schools because of the high cost of transportation," he said.

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