Warren may bring back busing

A potential change in Ohio’s school funding formula could put busing back on the table for Warren High School.

The Warren Local Board of Education eliminated the service two years ago to free up funding for facility repairs after the defeat of multiple bond issues to build new schools. While voters have rejected subsequent construction plans, the funding approach Gov. John Kasich is expected to announce next month, coupled with declining enrollment in the district, may negate any savings realized from the unpopular move.

“It gets to the point where the net reduction is small enough that the board has to rethink, ‘Is this the decision that we would have made?'” Warren Superintendent Tom Gibbs said.

The elimination of high school busing – which is not required by state law – was expected to reduce district expenses by $750,000 to $850,000 a year, Gibbs said. A loss of $350,000 to $450,000 in state funding was also expected due to the accompanying reduction in the number of students riding, putting the anticipated overall savings between $350,000 and $400,000.

In fact, the savings turned out to be more than $800,000 after the state replaced the evidence-based funding model implemented under previous Gov. Ted Strickland with a “bridge formula” that allocated funds based on how much districts previously received and didn’t take into account how many students were riding buses.

“So we didn’t lose any state aid,” Gibbs said.

“What we didn’t know is how many students we’d lose,” he said.

Between 75 and 80 students who attended the district in 2010-11 left via open enrollment to other districts, home-schooling or online charter schools. And when a student goes to another district or charter school, approximately $5,700 in state funding follows.

It’s believed at least some of those who left the district did so because of the loss of high school busing, although Gibbs noted a majority of students who left that year when they were sophomores returned this year as juniors.

Kasich’s two-year budget proposal is due to the General Assembly by Feb. 4. Gibbs said there’s a good chance transportation funding will once again be based on ridership, as it had been for decades. If that’s the case, the board and administration will have to consider whether there’s any significant savings to eliminating busing after the reduced number of riders and lower enrollment are taken into account.

“That’s what our job should be, is to … revisit our decisions as the facts change,” Gibbs said.

Asked whether the transportation formula might be based on the number of riders again, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor’s office wasn’t releasing piecemeal information about the plan.

“We’ll have a lot to say about that very shortly,” he said.

Warren Board President Bob Allen said he supports bringing busing back even if the funding mechanism doesn’t change, due to the loss of enrollment. But a further decrease in the savings affects the reason the board voted to cut the service in the first place.

“The entire intent was to save money, and if there was no significant benefit, I would anticipate the entire board would vote to return busing,” Allen said.

If such a vote is taken, it likely wouldn’t come until March or April, Gibbs said. But some of the groundwork could be laid at Monday’s board of education meeting, where board members will consider a resolution to seek bids for one or more new school buses.

The district would need at least one more bus and additional drivers if busing were reinstated. While the last two biennial budgets haven’t been finalized until the summer, Gibbs said there should be a good idea of how transportation money will be determined before then.

“I don’t want to wait until the last minute,” he said.

Gibbs also plans to advertise for additional substitute bus drivers, which could provide a pool for new permanent drivers if needed.