Shrinking state funding for student transportation and rising costs are making it more difficult for school districts across Georgia to get children to and from school safely. The worsening financial pinch leaves districts with aging bus fleets on the road past their intended life, concerns about student safety and far fewer dollars to invest in the classroom.

(This report includes a sampling of responses from district administrators to a recent GBPI survey question about busing costs.)  

“Our buses are beyond the planned life and require extensive labor to repair and maintain. Lack of training is a primary safety concern.”
– DeKalb County Schools

Georgia’s shift of transportation costs from the state treasury to districts is a trend 20 years in the making and affects every district regardless of size and location.

Decades-Long Slide in State Funding

The state requires districts to provide transportation to all students who live 1.5 miles or more from their schools as well as all for all special education students. At the expense of districts, many school systems also bus students who live within 1.5 miles due to safety concerns, such as a lack of sidewalks, congested intersections and unsafe places to walk. The state should cover the expense of busing these students, according to a 2000 Senate study committee report that examined the transportation formula. The General Assembly never acted on this recommendation.[1]

The state contributed less than 15 percent of the $884 million districts spent in the 2017 fiscal year to bus students. This is well below the portion it covered in the past.

One culprit for this decline is the state’s failure to provide the full amount of funding calculated by its own transportation formula. The state’s funding formula called for sending $320 million to districts in 2017, but instead the legislature approved just $130 million.

Source: Final Report of the Senate Study Committee on School Transportation, Nutrition and Support Personnel (2000). Georgia State Senate. GBPI analysis of District Expenditure Reports, fiscal years 2001, 2011 and 2017, and State Mid-term Allotment Sheets, fiscal years 2001, 2011 and 2017, Georgia Department of Education.

A second cause is rising transportation costs, which are not accounted for in the formula. For example, the number of bus drivers funded through the formula is well below the number of drivers districts now employ to keep pace with enrollment growth. The state also eliminated funding for health insurance for bus drivers, pushing that hefty expense onto districts. School systems also cope with higher fuel taxes and additional tag fees.[2]

Source: District Expenditure Reports, fiscal years 2000 through 2017, and State Mid-term Allotment Sheets, fiscal years 2000 through 2017, Georgia Department of Education.

Another significant financial strain is the state’s low and inconsistent allocation of money for bus replacement. In 2000 the state allotted $34.5 million to replace buses. That amount drops to $22.5 million in the proposed 2018 amended budget.[3] Between those years, state funding for bus replacement fluctuated but the overall trend is downward. These spending levels are not sufficient to replace the growing number of buses that are 15 years or older and need to be retired. If the state maintained funding at an inflation-adjusted 2000 level, Georgia would invest nearly $50 million in bus replacement in 2019.

There are 3,638 buses 15 years or older, about 24 percent of the school buses in daily use across Georgia.[4] The number of buses ready to age out of service grows each year. Buses that are 15 years old “have body and chassis fatigue, have a higher rate of engine and transmission failure, and do not include the latest safety upgrades,” including improved crash and rollover protection, anti-lock braking systems and rear motorist alert signs.[5]

A basic bus with no extras such as air conditioning costs $77,220.[6] Most districts spend more to ensure buses provide air conditioning and additional features to enhance safety. Georgia districts paid an average of $92,365 for a bus in the 2017 fiscal year that began July 2016.

The $7.5 million in bonds allotted in the 2018 budget is estimated to allow about 97 buses to be replaced.[7] Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed amended budget for 2018 includes an additional $15 million, enough to replace about 194 more buses. The total amount allocated in 2018 is enough to replace about 5 percent of buses 15 years and older. The governor’s proposed 2019 budget does not include any funding for bus replacement.

School districts are trying to replace buses with local revenue but limited local money restricts how quickly they can do so.

“We currently have to purchase buses on a four-year lease/purchase agreement and can only afford to lease one bus at a time. We can’t even afford a three-year lease/purchase.”
– Treutlen County Schools

Impact of Transportation Funding Crunch

In summer 2017, GBPI surveyed superintendents about student transportation needs and costs. More than one-quarter of respondents indicated they had concerns about student safety on buses.[8] Most described multiple deficiencies and cited lack of driver training and age of buses most frequently.

Source: GBPI 2017 School District Survey
“The high number of children on some of our routes creates safety concerns when supervised by only one driver. Bus monitors could help with supervision and help reduce discipline issues. Aging buses also tend to break down more often than later model buses. A bus on the side of the road is a great concern, creating loading/unloading issues and children arriving late to school or home.”
– Dade County Schools

While safety is the most urgent concern, lack of adequate state transportation funding creates other challenges for districts. The age of districts’ bus fleets drives up local transportation expenses. Older buses cost more to maintain and are less fuel efficient.

“We have a very old fleet and have had to hire two mechanics to keep costs down for repairs and maintenance. We still have buses from the 1990s on the road”
– White County Schools

Inadequate funding also means districts cannot make critical investments to improve other aspects of their transportation operations. Purchasing new buses is a priority but, if provided more money, districts also want shore up driver quality and other key elements.

Source: GBPI 2017 School District Survey

Many districts grapple with multiple needs across their transportation programs.

“We have to watch our tires closely to get the very largest number of miles out of them without being unsafe for our students. Our fleet is getting old and we need to replace some of the buses. We pay our drivers the absolute lowest salary and, therefore, have a very difficult time finding drivers.”  
– Turner County Schools

A few school districts also noted less common problems including lack of buses suitable for students with special needs as well as insufficient money to cover field trips and transportation for students who participate in after-school programs.

Insufficient transportation funding drains other areas of districts’ operations, including instruction. More state investment in transportation, according to survey respondents, can allow districts to redirect local funds to:

  • Instruction and school operations including reducing class size, adding instructional coaches, instructional materials, and expanded course offerings
  • Reduce millage rate
  • Cover rising health care costs
  • Reduce deficit

Conclusion

The state must ensure safe travel for Georgia’s students to and from school each day. Lawmakers should fully fund the existing transportation formula and supply enough money to get old buses off the roads. The Georgia Department of Education proposed several options for replacing buses older than 15 years.[9] It estimates that an investment of $62 million annually between fiscal years 2019 and 2022 will allow districts to replace these old buses. Student safety is at stake, so Georgia lawmakers should not hesitate to make this investment.

Endnotes

[1] Georgia State Senate. (2000). Final Report of the Senate Study Committee on School Transportation, Nutrition and Support Personnel. Atlanta, GA: Same. Retrieved from: http://www.senate.ga.gov/sro/Documents/StudyCommRpts/00SchoolTransNutRpt.pdf

[2] Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.

[3] Bus replacement money were allotted through the transportation formula until fiscal year 2008. In subsequent years, they were funded through bonds including $7.5 million in the original 2018 budget. The proposed amended fiscal year 2018 budget includes an additional $15 million paid out through the Georgia Department of Education’s business and finance administration unit.

[4] Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.

[5] Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.

[6] According to the Georgia Department of Education, the cost of a basic bus is $77,220. A basic bus has no extras including air conditioning. The average actual bus price paid by Georgia districts in fiscal year 2017 was $92,365. (Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.)

[7] According to the Georgia Department of Education, the cost of a basic bus is $77,220. A basic bus has no extras including air conditioning. The average actual bus price paid by Georgia districts in fiscal year 2017 was $92,365. (Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.)

[8] 113 of Georgia’s 180 school districts provided responses to the transportation questions on GBPI’s survey.

[9] Georgia Department of Education. (2017) Pupil Transportation Division Legislative Report. Atlanta, GA: Same.

Claire Suggs
Claire joined GBPI in 2012 as a senior education policy analyst. Her research focuses on education finance and school reform issues related to early childhood education, K-12 education, and higher education in Georgia. Claire holds a master’s in public affairs from LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor’s in English and History from the University of Michigan. Claire has begun work on her doctorate in education policy at the University of Georgia, College of Education.

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