State lawmakers are fast-tracking legislation that would transform a $248 million midyear school bus cut into a general-purpose reduction that hits each K-12 district evenly. The Assembly Budget Committee passed Senate Bill 81 with bipartisan support Tuesday, while an aide to Gov. Jerry Brown testified that the governor supports the proposal.
But Brown still wants to eliminate specific funding for buses in his 2012-13 budget, along with removing earmarks for a variety of other K-12 programs. He instead proposes a new block grant funding system for schools, out of which he suggests districts could fund bus service if they choose.
In Tuesday's hearing, Republicans and Democrats representing rural areas joined together to lobby for SB 81, which only applies for the remainder of this school year. The bus cut was triggered when state forecasters determined last month that California would fall $2.2 billion short of a $4 billion tax revenue bump that Brown and lawmakers assumed in the 2011-12 state budget.
"It's a catastrophic problem in my district and in many other rural parts of California," said Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, who represents the North Coast area. "Eliminating the school bus system creates dangerous situations for many children in California, but for my district it means it would be impossible for many children, if not most children in some districts, to attend school at all."
The cut would have hit some rural districts particularly hard. According to data compiled by the California School Boards Association, the isolated Death Valley Unified School District would lose $1,734 per student this spring. Meanwhile, many suburban districts would lose less than $10 per student.
The bill would change the bus cut into an across-the-board hit to districts equal to about $42 per student. Districts like Death Valley would be spared a massive reduction, while suburban districts would lose more money than they thought. Many members of the state's Education Coalition, which includes labor unions and administrators, testified in support.
Among the few opponents Tuesday were Sen. Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, who said that her districts face additional cuts as a result of the bill. Charter schools also opposed the change because they said they would lose funding despite being ineligible for bus money.
"The districts I represent, I called virtually all of the superintendents from the larger districts, and not one of them comes out a winner," Harkey said.
PHOTO CREDIT: Pleasant Grove High School students get off their bus on Friday, Feb. 20, 2009. The Sacramento Bee / Hector Amezcua