Gov. Quinn Calls for Large Cuts for School Bus Funding
By Chris Slaby
School districts across Illinois could receive less money for school buses next year. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is calling for massive cuts to state spending on school buses.
He said it would stave off further cuts to classroom spending. But critics are asking what good is classroom spending if students can't get to school?
Elementary students decked out in bright galoshes and rain coats pile on to a school bus in Springfield. State law requires free transportation for any student who lives at least a mile-and-a-half away from school.
Local school administrators say that's becoming more difficult. Not only does Gov. Quinn's budget proposal cut general classroom funding by three percent.
He would also slash transportation funding by 70 percent. Local school districts would be left to make up the difference on their own, but that won't be easy.
“We've frozen pay, we've done all those sort of things. but at a certain point, you get to the point where the only thing left becomes programs,” said Angela Smith, an assistant superintendent with the school district in Plainfield, in the far southwest suburbs of Chicago.
She said the district has already cut $40 million in the last three years. If Quinn's transportation cuts become law, Plainfield would go into next year with a $5 million deficit.
“It's going to create this real animosity between groups because we're all going to be fighting over the same money," Smith said.
Smith said Plainfield schools already cut costs by having students meet at stops, instead of the bus driver going from house-to-house. She said she does not know what else the district can do.
Anthony Galindo said bus stops are really the only option for his school district to make up the difference. Galindo is the superintendent of Gibson City School District 5, about 30 miles north of Champaign, which includes large rural areas. In rural Illinois, students often live many miles from their school.
Galindo said less money could put the burden on parents to drive their kids, either to the bus stop, or to class ... which he says would result in a domino effect. He said more students might skip class more regularly, and because the state gives less money to districts with higher absentee rates, the district could see further funding cuts.
"That's counter-intuitive. How do you institute more programs and at the same time say 'We're going to cut your funding?'" Galindo said.
Despite the proposed $145-million reduction in bus funding, Quinn's budget spokesman, Abdon Pallasch, said the governor is committed to getting students to class on time. But he could not offer any indication of how the governor might help districts make do.
Pallasch said cuts to school transportation funding were proposed last year by the General Assembly, but they were averted because Illinois instead used money it saved by closing state facilities. He said this year, there are no more facilities to close.
Pallasch said increasing pension costs require the governor to cut education spending.
"There's no good options here. When you cut money to education, do you cut classrooms? Teachers? Buses?" Pallasch said. "That puts more of a burden on the local school districts, which is not a good option, which is one of the least bad options as we look all over the budget for where else we can cut."
But State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) sees political motives. Downstate schools, which can cover large geographic areas, are more dependent on state funding for busses. Barickman said he believes Gov. Quinn is “taking a lick” at downstate districts as he prepares for a re-election run in 2014.
“Those areas tend not to support the governor in election races," Barickman said. "I doubt they're going to support him much next year. He realizes that and thinks it's an easy constituency to target.”
Barickman also said the governor's proposal is just that - a proposal, and that there is still a ways to go in the budgeting process.
Legislators, not Quinn, get to write the budget and decide how much money to put into education transportation.