Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 1, 2009
Our View - Still room for negotiations on school busing
In their efforts to trim millions of dollars from their budget -- and in preparation for even worse economic times ahead -- Iowa City School District officials have been talking about eliminating the district's long-standing practice of providing bus service for Regina Catholic Education Center. Instead, they are considering having the district serve as an intermediary through which transportation reimbursements directly pass to Regina parents.
That seems like a fair idea to us. After all, the district is losing about $260,000 this year because of the bus service. District officials say that they contract out service to Durham Student Services for an average of slightly more than $39,300 per bus. With 11 buses going to Regina, the district shells out more than $432,000, for which it receives only about $173,000 in state reimbursements -- leaving the district to pull from its general fund to cover the extra transportation costs.
But a better idea is for the district to start working with Regina to set up a plan by which the private school -- over a series of one, two or three years -- eventually begins paying all the difference between the state's reimbursement and how much the bus service costs.
The district does have a legal obligation to assist in the transportation of resident students to state-accredited, non-public schools like Regina. That law has been on the books at least since the early 1970s. But that responsibility shouldn't become a financial hardship for any public school district -- which is why state law also allows for districts to offer reimbursements directly to students' families. And given the pessimistic forecasts for next year's state revenues, it's highly unlikely that the state will be increasing the reimbursement rate any time soon.
The district already offers reimbursements to the only other state-accredited, non-public school in the Iowa City area: Willowwind. That situation is quite a bit different, however, because Willowwind only has less than five dozen K-6 students (compared to Regina's 855 K-12 students) and because Willowwind officials haven't asked for any designated bus routes. (Officials from North Liberty-based Heritage Christian School, which is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, say they have no immediate plans to seek the additional state accreditation that would be necessary for their 150 students to qualify for transportation reimbursement.)
Regina officials say that the $260,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the many other areas in which the district could trim its budget. They argue that, if the district's transportation decision leads to many families deciding to pull their students out of Regina and to enroll them in public school, then the district would have to deal with the costs of more students with no additional local property taxes to supplement state funding. They also point out that while reimbursement is a legal option for the district, the practice represents the minimum standard allowable by law.
"Minimum service isn't a hallmark of Iowa City education," Regina President Carol Trueg said.
We agree that the situation isn't just an either-or choice between the public school district cutting the busing service and the district eating the $260,000 in extra costs. There is still room for negotiations between the two school systems.
So we urge both sides to work together to find a solution that allows the public school district to meet its obligations to non-public students -- beyond the minimum legal standard -- but that also stops Regina from receiving what amounts to a free bus ride at public expense.