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Rural schools burdened by transportation costs

Rockwell elementary and middle school students board buses to go home after school on Friday.

DES MOINES | As rural Iowa school districts consolidate to trim expenses and a decades-old school funding formula remains unchanged, many rural districts are bearing an oversized burden of high transportation costs.

State lawmakers are attempting to address the inequity, but there may not be enough money in the state's checkbook to cover any viable solution.

Schools pay for transportation from the same general funds that pay for many other expenses, such as books and materials, technology and teachers, and schools with higher transportation costs are using a larger piece of their budget pie just to get kids to school.

The state school funding formula was created in the 1970s, when Iowa had more about 450 districts. Today, there are 338.

Many schools, especially those in sparsely populated areas, have attempted to manage expenses by consolidating districts. But as district boundaries become larger that only adds to the cost to transport students to classes.

General school funding from the state does not account for districts' varied transportation costs. Those that are forced to spend more on transportation have less left over for classroom expenses.

"If a school district is spending $1,200 of that (budget) to get a child to school vs. a metro district that may be spending $120 per kid, that creates a real disparity," said Steve Ward, the superintendent for the Central Springs district in northern Iowa.

Central Springs spends $593 per student on transportation. That's slightly less than twice the statewide average of $316, according to state Department of Education data.

State lawmakers are contemplating methods to overcome that inequity. A committee of legislators met to discuss the issue before this year's session, and a half-dozen proposals were introduced during the session.

"Those costs come directly out of the schools' ability to educate the child," said Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, who worked on many of the bills designed to address the issue. "You can see there's huge, huge disparities that may exist in the ability of the districts to be able to educate. …

"Iowans feel that all children, regardless of where their parents live, should receive an equal opportunity for an equal education."

The legislative solutions proposed this year varied. One would use new state funding to bring every school down to the state average transportation cost per student. Another phased in new state funding over three years, providing funds first to those schools with the highest percentage of transportation costs. Yet another allowed districts to ask property taxpayers to increase taxes to help pay for transportation costs.

None of the half-dozen proposals survived a recent legislative deadline and thus are ineligible for further consideration this year.

Cost remains a significant hurdle. The proposals were projected to cost $20 million to $30 million.

That price tag is a heavy burden at a time when schools are already upset with what they say is inadequate state funding and lawmakers cannot agree on how much general state school funding should increase.

"It's a unique time when funding is really tight because we've had low, and I would say record low, increases in our state funding at the very time when enrollment's dropping," said Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa. "So for rural districts this inequity seems worse than it's ever been."

Schools have called for at least twice the $98 million general funding increase budgeted by House Republicans and Gov. Terry Branstad. Schools say that funding level and will lead to layoffs, increased class sizes and reduced programs. Republicans have not budged off their offer.

Rural schools say that low school funding and lack of transportation offsets make for a difficult double-whammy.

"I often say that superintendents pull a bunny from a hat," Ward said. "Well, my bunny is so skinny he has a tail and two ears, but there's nothing else left to pull out."

Hanson and Rep. Tedd Gassman, R-Scarville, who also worked on the proposed legislation, said lawmakers will continue to debate the issue and possible solutions.

Buckton said she is hopeful the state can dedicate funding a few fiscal years down the road after large commitments to education and property tax reform come off the state's books.

"I think we have to decide where our priorities are," Hanson said. "That's something we need to decide as a legislative body, as a government, as a people of Iowa. We need to decide what's important."

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