Missouri has slowed its roll in recent years when it comes to funding school transportation costs.
Less money is available for all districts — and school buses can take a beating, especially in rural areas where gravel roads and potholes are common.
But problems aren’t limited to rural districts.
In 2004, St. Louis Public Schools received $12.2 million from the state. This year the district received $4.3 million, said Patrick Wallace, district spokesman. The district contracts its bus service out to First Student.
Ten years ago, the state covered about 54 percent of St. Louis’ transportation budget, compared with 19 percent this year, according to district numbers.
Wallace said more money is coming out of the district’s general revenue to make up the difference.
“If we didn’t use money for transportation, we would use it for some other classroom necessity or function,” Wallace said.
The state has slowly weaned school districts since 1992, when it covered 69 percent of transportation costs that were eligible for reimbursement, according to figures from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state now covers less than 30 percent of expenses statewide each year.
At the same time, costs have increased. Districts spent $158 million on eligible transportation costs in 1991; last year, they spent $399 million, according to state numbers.
In the holds of the Great Recession, the state went from spending $155 million for fiscal year 2009 to spending $100 million the next year. The appropriation has flat-lined since then, state numbers show.
“This is a direct result of taking in less revenue and having less money to spend on things we need to spend it on,” said state Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
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The money — or lack thereof — often means more to districts in poorer parts of the state, where road conditions vary and buses travel long distances, superintendents said.
“I’m not sure the current Legislature understands all the issues districts face for transportation,” said Ray Patrick, a former superintendent and current executive director of the Missouri Association of Rural Education.
He said that new federal and state safety standards and increased bus costs have taken their toll. Patrick said he’s heard from districts that used to replace buses every five to seven years. Now, they’re waiting as long as a decade.
“The state has cut the transportation budget drastically to where we’re not getting hardly any funds for transportation,” said Jeanne Curtis, superintendent and principal of the Skyline School District. “It doesn’t cover wear and tear, the fuel costs — anything.”
In the district that serves fewer than 100 students in Douglas County, about an hour north of the Arkansas border, money is already tight, Curtis said.
Six years ago, the district collected $58,000 from the state, but officials expect to get $20,000 next school year — roughly a fifth of the district’s transportation budget, Curtis said.
None of the district’s five buses passed this year’s Missouri Highway Patrol bus inspections.
St. Louis area school districts performed well on this year’s bus inspections. In contrast, just one-fifth of the Rockwood School District’s buses passed inspection last year. This year, 95 percent passed. The district contracts with First Student.
The Clark County School District — along the Iowa border in the northeastern Missouri — has a fleet of 25 buses. This year, inspectors took six out of service until repairs were made. Four others were deemed defective, but those were allowed to stay on the road.
Superintendent Ritchie Kracht considers student safety a “top priority” but said district buses on 15 routes travel about 1,200 miles a day “on gravel roads that are full of potholes and beat up,” he said, “and it’s not the county’s fault; they just don’t have the money, either.”
The situation is similar down south in Missouri’s bootheel, where three of the Leopold School District’s five buses were labeled defective, or had to be taken out of service.
“They’re not like roads in St. Louis,” said Superintendent Keenan Kinder. “I don’t want to throw my county under the bus, because they try to fix it, but they’re limited in what they can do.”
Many school superintendents said that transportation costs are a side issue compared to the state not fully funding the formula for aid to school districts, as defined by a 2005 law.
“You spend money on what you deem important,” Kinder said. “A lot of legislators say they’re pro-education, but when it comes time to put money to it, sometimes they don’t vote that way.”
Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-St. Charles and chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education appropriations committee, said that carving out more for transportation would mean less for general education aid.
“We could increase transportation, but then the formula would get less,” he said. “The districts would complain about that as well. We need to fix the formula before we can move resources to other aspects of the budget like transportation.”