Officials push for change in transportation policy as costs skyrocket

Officials push for change in transportation policy as costs skyrocket

WOONSOCKET – A change in statewide policy has led to a dramatic increase in the city’s school busing costs, with some portions of the transportation budget jumping by as much as 67 percent from 2018 to 2019.

In fiscal year 2018, the city’s Rhode Island Department of Education transportation cost was $819,599. This number, only a portion of the larger transportation budget, covers the inter-district busing costs of students who, for various reasons, attend school outside the district where they live. These could include students with special medical placements, foster children and students attending a career and technical program in another district.

In fiscal year 2019, those costs jumped to $1,370,189, an increase of more than half. That jump is driving a sharp increase in the department’s overall transportation budget.

The culprit, according to Supt. Patrick McGee, is a change in state policy regarding where students under the care of the Department of Children, Youth and Families attend school. In April 2018, Rhode Island implemented the Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress more than two years earlier. Among the changes was a new policy intended to give students in DCYF care more consistent education.

Under the new policy, a student who moves from a foster or shelter placement in one district to another may still attend school in their previous district, or in an entirely different district, depending on the situation. Several parties, including the previous district, the new district, the DCYF and the Rhode Island Department of Education meet to determine what is best for that child.

McGee said the Woonsocket Education Department has no problem with the new policy and agrees it may be best for the children involved. In many cases, he said, moving a student from one district to another mid-school year could have a negative impact on that child’s education.

“If you’re a 5th-grader, say, or a middle school student, it doesn’t make sense to uproot you and put you in another district,” he told The Breeze.

However, the district has concerns with the state’s policy on transportation for these students. Under the policy, the child’s “district of origin” is responsible for the cost of transporting him or her from one district or another, a cost that could be very high depending on the location. If, for example, a student from Woonsocket moved to a foster placement in Newport but continued attending school in Woonsocket, the city would be responsible for transporting that child back and forth to school every day.

“Where it really hits us is if we have students who are here in Woonsocket and then they’re placed in, let’s say, a foster placement in another community or a shelter,” said McGee.

While the policy applies to all districts, McGee said Woonsocket has been hit particularly hard as a community with a high number of foster placements. Woonsocket has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in the state and ranks in the top two for students in extreme poverty, both factors that contribute to a large number of students in state care.

On Nov. 19, McGee and Finance Director Brad Peryea presented the information to state legislators during a meeting of the Special Legislative Task Force to Study Rhode Island’s Education Funding Formula. During the meeting, superintendents from around the state presented financial challenges facing their districts. Among the topics of discussion were charter school tuitions, career and technical education tuitions, English language learners and transportation.

Under the current state funding formula, districts are 100 percent responsible for the cost of transporting their students, including inter-district transportation. In fiscal year 2019, the first year the changes fully took effect, the district budgeted $3.08 million for all transportation costs, according to Peryea. The actual cost surpassed those estimates by more than $400,000, coming in at $3.5 million.

This year, those costs are expected to continue to increase, with the district budgeting an additional $229,000, or $3.72 million total, for the 2019-2020 school year. According to Peryea, a surplus and an increase in state aid have allowed the district to avoid cutting other items to pay for transportation, but the trend presents concerns for the future.

“We were running a surplus last year, so we were able to absorb that half a million dollars,” he said.

As part of the discussion around changing the funding formula, district officials are hoping the state will pick up some of the cost of transporting students. One model, said Peryea, would be to split the state into regions and identify how far students are traveling to attend school. Inside the region, districts would pay the cost of student transportation, but outside the region, the state would be responsible.

McGee said the cost has been especially difficult in a district that has had minimal local budget increases since 2014. He asked the task force to consider changing the transportation policy when looking at the funding formula.

“It’s a very large cost to a district that is struggling right now just to provide those basic services,” he said.