As a mother of two, Feleccia Moore-Davis is accustomed to the usual back-to-school swirl of new supplies, new clothes and new routines. But this year, that final flurry of summer is accompanied by an unusual worry.
Moore-Davis does not yet know how her children will get to school.
Last month, the financially pressed Houston-area school district her two daughters attend decided to end bus service for students living within two miles of schools. Now Moore-Davis is contemplating the bustling intersections and streets without sidewalks the girls would have to navigate if they walked to school, and wondering whether her own work schedule can be reconfigured for drop-offs and pickups.
It is a dilemma facing thousands of parents across the country, as cash-strapped school districts from California to Florida have cut bus routes to chip away at spending.
"I'm still trying to figure out how I will do this," said Moore-Davis, who has one daughter entering middle school and another entering high school. "My youngest is very concerned about who's going to pick her up. She keeps asking me about it."
About 23 percent of school districts surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators say they are reducing or eliminating school transportation for the coming school year as part of cost-cutting measures. That's up from the 14 percent who considered such measures during the 2008-2009 year.
"I've seen it happening in Massachusetts, in Ohio, in Indiana. A lot of school districts are looking at in varying degrees," said Robin Leeds, industry specialist with the National School Transportation Association.
"It's an awful thing to do, and the only reason we're doing it is the state has taken action to reduce our revenue to support our programming," said Doug Hasler, director of support services for Elkhart Community Schools in Indiana. "We really have no other choice."
Parents and transportation advocates say the proposed cuts will have wide-ranging repercussions — affecting everything from parents' work schedules to student attendance. Many also worry that the cuts will jeopardize the safety of students who may have to cross busy highways or dangerous roads to get to class. Deadly school bus crashes are rare, while past studies have shown riding to school in a car, walking and bicycling account for hundreds of student deaths a year.
For their part, school districts say trimming student transportation is a painful but necessary way of coping with reductions in state funding and a drop in property tax revenue.
Districts hope to save up
Most states reimburse only a portion of bus service costs, saddling local districts with the bulk of the expense of transporting students. In addition, most states do not reimburse the costs of transporting students who live within a specified distance from school.
In Brockton, Mass., near Boston, the school district expects to save $500,000 by taking 10 school buses off the road in September, adding to the 20 already cut last year.
In Cobb County, Ga., a district facing a $58 million deficit, the school board recently voted to consolidate bus routes by eliminating 8,500 stops — about 15 percent of the total in the district. The school district revised plans to eliminate 11,000 bus stops and changed stops to avoid busy streets after dozens of angry parents showed up at a school board meeting.
In Elkhart, In., the district hopes to save up to $300,000 on transportation costs this year through the changes. The Lawrence Township schools in Indianapolis expects to save $800,000 by moving to a shuttle system. Edinburgh Community Schools have eliminated a bus to save $15,000, forcing dozens of students to walk.
(Read more about Elkhart's struggles in msnbc.com's The Elkhart Project.)
School districts throughout California are grappling with severe cuts in state funding, including a 20 percent cut in funding for school transportation in the new state budget. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had lobbied for a 65 percent reduction, but relented after a chorus of protests.
After losing about $9 million in state funding, the state's Novato Unified School District decided to eliminate all bus service except for special education students. The move will affect about 600 of the district's 8,000 students.
"We were trying to avoid hitting classrooms," said Marla Blackledge, Novato's chief financial officer.
Even before the drop in funding, state money covered less than half the costs of school bus service, Blackledge said.
Concerns for working parents
"This was just the last straw," she said. "But we do have concerns for working parents, how their kids will get to school, how they will get to day care, about parents living in poverty who don't have a car to drive kids to school. We're concerned about whether the kids will come to school at all."
In Texas, the state reimburses districts according to a formula set in 1983. Last year, the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, which Moore-Davis' two daughters attend, spent $32 million for student transportation services, but only got $6.4 million in reimbursement.
Texas also does not reimburse the cost of transporting students who live within two miles of school.
In the past, the district absorbed the extra costs, but this year, the district is confronting a $14 million budget deficit and no longer can do that, Superintendent David Anthony said in a letter to parents.
In addition to cutting service within the two-mile limit, the district will no longer offer "late" bus services for students who stay after school for extracurricular activities. About 16,000 of the district's 104,000 students will be affected by the changes.
Moore-Davis' job as vice president for student learning at a local community college gives her more flexibility than most working parents, but she says many of her neighbors are not so lucky.
"A lot of people are experiencing economic hardship. There are families that need to have two jobs and can't just stop in the middle of day to pick up children," Moore-Davis said. "And they're concerned about the security of their children."
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