State aid for busing unclear; Warren waiting

The future of busing at Warren High School is still up in the air as uncertainty about the new school-funding formula continues.

Warren Local Superintendent Tom Gibbs said in January that if Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed funding mechanism once again based transportation funding on ridership it might no longer make financial sense for the district to not offer the service, eliminated two years ago in a cost-cutting measure.

“It doesn’t give us any more money,” Gibbs said. “It just changes the math.”

But that math isn’t easy to do yet since the projections Kasich’s office released more than a month ago didn’t include transportation dollars and a formula for the distribution has not been widely released.

On Friday, Jim Lynch with the Office of Budget Management said in an email that the total amount of transportation funding allocated to schools in both of the biennial budget’s fiscal years would be $442,113,527, the same as this year, and the formula would be based on the number of riders, as it was prior to the current “bridge formula.”

That funding mechanism – a temporary measure while the new model was developed – did not allocate dollars specifically to transportation, but instead provided funds based on previous years.

“Given the fact that Ohio has not had a dedicated payment for reimbursement of school transportation costs during the last two years, we did not have the data necessary to calculate the transportation funds attributable to each district,” Barbara Mattei-Smith, assistant policy director for education with the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Learning, said in an email Friday. “Therefore, we felt the best approach was to keep the formula and the amount of funds available for reimbursement the same.”

It was not immediately clear Friday whether the $442 million figure included the transportation supplement in addition to the regular subsidy. According to the Associated Press, some school officials say an analysis of the budget proposal suggests supplemental funding would be eliminated while others say it has moved to guaranteed funds, which the governor has indicated he would eventually like to see eliminated.

Warren receives $248,068 in transportation supplement funding, while Frontier Local Schools get $124,578. Belpre City, Fort Frye Local and Marietta City schools do not receive a supplement. Information for Wolf Creek Local Schools was not immediately available.

Additionally, Gibbs said that in trying to find out more about transportation funding, he’d been told the numbers would be based on the district’s busing this year, when service to the high school was not offered.

Gibbs addressed that issue last week in testimony before the Ohio House of Representatives’ Finance and Appropriations Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education.

“The answer to date has been that funding would not return for a full year, making it essentially impossible to return this important service to a district that covers nearly 200 square miles,” he said in his prepared testimony.

But in her email Friday, Mattei-Smith seemed to indicate that would not be the case.

“School districts that choose to maintain, restore or increase school bus services will receive a reimbursement in line with previous funding levels,” she said.

Because the bridge formula was based on previous years and did not take actual ridership into account, Warren saved more than expected by eliminating high school busing – more than $800,000. However some of that was offset by the departure of 75 to 80 students for other districts and online charter schools, with approximately $5,700 each in funding going with them.

It is believed at least some of those students transferred due to the loss of high school busing.

To bring back busing would cost the district more than $700,000 a year, Gibbs said. Funding for the high school students would cover part of that.

“The other half is kind of a gamble that students would return and we would see increased funding,” Gibbs said.

If the funding was based on this year’s ridership, the district would have an even bigger hole to make up.

“In planning for a worst-case scenario, you’d have to plan on spending down your cash reserves by $700,000,” Gibbs said.

That would also seem to go against the administration’s pledge that districts would not receive less in funding next year than they are this year, he said.

Knowing the specifics of the proposal would only give the district an indication of what the final formula might be, since it must still go through the General Assembly. The longer it takes to be finalized, the longer the Warren Local Board of Education will have to wait to make a decision.

“We would at least want to wait until the proposal worked its way through the House” of Representatives, Gibbs said. “What would be best is if we could make a decision before the end of the school year so we could communicate that decision.”

The district also would need to employ nine new bus drivers to bring back high school service. So far, only two people have responded to ads seeking substitute drivers, which could be a pool from which full-time drivers could be hired, Gibbs said.