Tackling cuts to state's school bus program

Published: Jun. 19, 2012 at 9:23 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 20, 2012 at 12:40 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's been a tough road when it comes to school bus cuts. The new year for Hawaii's public schools starts in less than six weeks. That means time is of the essence to fund the school bus program for thousands of students or face slashes to service.

The Board of Education spent hours grappling with the issue again on Tuesday. Education officials think they've come up with the best solution possible - while balancing the realities of a tight budget.

The wheels of the bus go round and round, except when there's no money to fund them. A week ago, though, the Department of Education received an unexpected-but-timely multi-million dollar windfall, of sorts, from a federal program called Impact Aid. In turn, the BOE greenlighted $1.5 million of that for the state's student transportation program.

One lawmaker was pushing for as much of that money for the program as possible. "It is absolutely, with certainty, that a student will not learn if he or she isn't in school. And some kids will not go to school without student bus service," said Rep. Mark Takai, who sits on the House Education Committee.

When it comes to the state's general education bus service (not the special ed service), here's the challenge: The DOE requested $42 million to run the program for the coming school year. The legislature budgeted $25 million - leaving a $17 million dollar shortfall. With some further belt-tightening, the DOE got that down to $10 million but that leaves the board with some tough decisions.

"We're strapped in a variety of different ways," said BOE Chairman Don Horner. Education officials continue to look at everything from combining ages of riders to collection points, like kiss-and-rides, to free city bus passes and staggered school start times. The DOE recommended cutting about 125 bus routes this upcoming year - which would impact approximately 3,800 students, statewide. Boardmembers told the DOE to re-examine those proposed cuts - to see if some routes can be saved.

"We're glad that we now have our marching orders, and we can move forward with implementation, letting parents know what's coming," says DOE Superintendent, Kathryn Matayoshi.

Education officials say they've got to create ways to maintain the bus service at a lower cost. "Going into the future, we do not want a system that requires money to fall from the heavens every year to make up the deficit," says DOE Assistant Superintendent, Randy Moore.

The DOE is finalizing specific bus routes that will be affected this year and will post a list on its website sometime next week.

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