Friday, May 19, 2017

Rural-urban disparity on school bus transportation costs puts some rural districts in financial bind

Like many states where rural school districts are large in area, but small in population, Iowa's rural schools are shelling out large sums of money to transport students in half-empty school buses, Sarah Boden reports for Iowa Public Radio. The state median for transportation costs is $380 per student, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

But a rural-urban disparity exists, Boden notes. For example, the Des Moines Independent School District, Iowa’s largest, "spent $193 below the state median per pupil on transportation during the 2015-2016 school year," which comes to an additional $6 million. In rural Greene County Community School District, which is the state’s eighth largest in geographic size at 388 square miles, but only has 3.35 students per square mile, the average cost is $586 per pupil. That's $206 per student above the median, or $268,111 for the entire school year. (IPR graphic: Student population density in Iowa; click here for an interactive map.)
Greene County Superintendent Tim Christensen said that if he had that extra $268,000 a year, "he could hire more teachers, which would allow him to reduce class sizes and offer more electives," Boden writes. "What’s going on in Greene County is going on all over the state. "Especially in rural school districts where populations are shrinking and districts are dissolving or consolidating at a clip of a least a couple a year."

"The state’s funding formula is primarily to blame for this inequality," Boden reports. "Each district’s general fund budget receives a set amount per student from the state. For the 2016-2017 school year the sum was $6,591. In addition to transportation costs, a district’s general fund must also budget for salaries, text books, technology, and even capital improvements."

"But it's not all the state's fault," Boden notes. "School districts also have a responsibility to keep transportation costs low, and some do a better job than others... In part to keep transportation costs in check, Greene County is moving all K-12 classes to the city of Jefferson, which is the center of the district and the county seat. That means the intermediate school is closing. The fourth grade class will move to the elementary school, while fifth and sixth graders will become middle schoolers."

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