Missouri school districts prepare for state budget cuts

More students are walking the streets or riding in cars to get to the Bayless School District. But the walks are not for exercise, and the rides are not to spend more time with their parents. Their St. Louis County school district has eliminated buses to help keep teachers.

It’s a significant change brought on by state budget cuts. And it has led to some complaints about how the lack of buses affects the community, the students and their families.

“It certainly was not an optimal decision, but we balanced it against larger class sizes, which we really think diminishes student achievement,” said Jeff Preisack, board president for the Bayless district. “It was a cut that while painful, avoided more damaging cuts like layoffs or increased class sizes.”

The elimination of buses is an easy-to-spot ramification of an ongoing state budget crunch that has forced state agencies and lawmakers to spend the last several years looking for programs to cut and services to curtail. State workers have been laid off, state holidays have been eliminated and social service programs have been reduced.

Missouri lawmakers this year have kept flat basic education funding despite a state formula that called for a more than $100 million increase. Gov. Jay Nixon also cut $70 million in state aid for school buses and transportation. Last school year, the governor cut $12 million from school transportation.

For officials at Bayless schools, the state’s cuts contributed to a several hundred thousand dollar budget deficit that left few good options. Besides eliminating buses this year for several hundred students who had been riding them, the district also cut back on building cleaning, did not replace a librarian and required employees to contribute more for their health insurance.

“We don’t have fluff. We are practical in our practices because that’s the kind of community we’re in,” Bayless Superintendent Maureen Clancy-May said.

Missouri schools this year are receiving $83 million to reimburse them for transportation, which is just more than half of $156 million that they got last year for busing students. This year’s funding is the lowest over at least the last two decades, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

And some school officials are preparing for the possibility of more state cuts. Lawmakers begin their annual legislative session Wednesday and face a budget deficit estimated at $500 million. That has policymakers facing thorny choices about where to look for additional ways to trim spending.

Nixon, who will present his proposed state budget in January, told The Associated Press that he does expect to recommend increases in basic state aid to school districts and is hoping simply to avoid reducing it. Meanwhile, he said that state funding for buses and transportation is on a “watch list” for potential budget cuts.

Incoming House Speaker Steven Tilley said that although spending on K-12 education is a good investment, everything — including schools — needs to be on the table for possible cuts. Tilley said Missourians are expecting state officials to live with the revenue they already have.

“You’re beyond cutting fat,” said Tilley, R-Perryville. “I think you’re getting to the point where you’re going to start to cut some bone.”

Missouri law requires schools to provide transportation for students who live at least 3.5 miles from school, though many districts have provided buses for those who live more than 1 mile away.

The Missouri School Boards’ Association said some fear the state could completely eliminate school transportation funding. Transportation cuts can be particularly problematic for rural districts that tend to be more spread out and therefore bus their students farther.

“Sometimes people believe that when they’re cutting transportation, they might go there first because that does not affect classroom instruction,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “And that can be true, but it’s not always true.”

Even when school districts avoid directly cutting funding in the classrooms, it can cause disruptions.

Kitryn Mounts, whose son previously rode the bus to Bayless schools, now drives him to his fourth grade class in the morning and then picks him up in the afternoon several blocks from school. She said busy streets and a lack of sidewalks prevent the 10-year-old from walking and traffic can be hectic near the school, which causes delays.

Mounts said the lack of buses is frustrating for parents and forces them to handle transportation duties that she said should be the responsibility of the state and local school officials.

“What good is having a school if you can’t provide for the students?” Mounts said.

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