Here's an unusual proposition tucked in districts' back-to-school newsletters this year: Parents, would you be willing to find alternative transportation for your kids if you get some cash up front?
One of the most complicated and expensive aspects of reopening buildings during a global pandemic has been figuring out how to get kids to and from school.
Now, a growing number of districts are offering to pay parents in an attempt to reduce crowding on buses and slash away at a growing pile of COVID-19-related costs. At the same time, other districts are requiring parents to pony up for a ride on the bus in order to cover their rising transportation costs.
In Philadelphia, parents can get up to $1,500 this school year for opting out of their school bus ride. Watertown schools in South Dakota is offering parents 42 cents a mile if they can manage to get their kids to school on their own, on average a 30-mile round trip. And Mark Twain Union Elementary School District in Angels Camp, Calif., is adding $10 to the annual $130 parents pay this year for transportation costs.
"It sets up a potential problematic relationship where a public school system is charging for services," said Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance professor. "But we're already charging for lunch and Advanced Placement classes and lockers. There's already a part of this that's fully normalized."
While no students in South Dakota have signed up to get reimbursed from the state, more than 8,000 families so far have signed up for Philadelphia's cash-back program.
Aside from paying teachers, transportation is one of the costliest aspects of running a school district, nationally adding up to more than $25 billion a year, more than twice the amount spent in 1980.
Health experts this summer told districts that if kids were going to ride the bus, they should be spaced out, one per seat, every other row.
In order to comply, administrators said they'd have to double, possibly triple their routes, hire more bus drivers, and add buses to their fleets. That could wind up costing districts millions of dollars, a cost many, already undergoing their own budget cuts, can't afford.
"To try to even cut the number of kids on a bus each day by half, we'd have to buy 20 more buses at $100,000 a pop," said Jeff Danielsen, the superintendent of Watertown school district. "That, for, what we hope, is a one-year pandemic, just didn't make a lot of fiscal sense."
Districts also have introduced health and safety measures, installing hand sanitizers on their buses and plexiglass around bus drivers, and employing paraprofessionals to conduct temperature checks of students. In order to cut costs, some districts have instituted fees, like Mark Twain, or increased the distance students must live from school in order to qualify for bus rides.
"Transportation costs have gone up and up and up and up," said Roy Blair, the director of business services for Mark Twain Union Elementary School District. "For every dollar that we spend on transportation, that takes a dollar away from the classroom."
Transportation to and from schools in many states, is not required by law for students without special needs.
Fiscal hawks for years have been pushing districts to either ax transportation altogether, as many charter schools have done, or design a more efficient system. But a big, yellow school bus rolling through students' neighborhoods twice a day is such a staple of the K-12 experience that administrators often have a difficult time making alterations.
Some large urban districts, such as Dayton, Ohio, and Baltimore, have provided students with student passes to ride the public transit system to school.
Administrators worry that if they cut off transportation entirely, parents would fail to get their kids to school every day.
Consequently, there's been a lot of bloat: Buses waste gas and time waiting on students who either regularly miss the bus or, alternatively, find their own ride to school.
"There are a lot of redundancies in transportation costs," said Roza, who's consulted with district administrators on ways to cut costs. "For districts, it's contrary to their thinking to give the money directly to kids' families, but I think now, it might be a good idea."
The idea of paying parents for finding their own transportation was plucked from special education services, where transportation from the front door of students' houses to school is mandated by federal law.
For years, districts have attempted several strategies to cut down on costs, including hiring a fleet of taxicabs, reimbursing parents' rideshare receipts, and paying parents directly.
Even though outsourcing the job to private transportation is cheaper than hiring bus drivers, buying more buses and paying for gas, there have been no shortage of scandals.
Almost all the taxicab drivers Chicago Public Schools hired in 2009 to get kids with special needs to and from school lacked the proper license, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation.
And in 2018, an investigation by WHYY in Philadelphia revealed that one special education student's transportation costs racked up almost $60,000 in just one year.
While Philadelphia public schools remain closed for in-person instruction this month, the district provides transportation for students attending charter schools and some private schools that may be physically open.
To entice families to find their own way to school, the district last month rolled out its "Parent Flat Rate Program." Every month, parents who enroll in the program will get $150 per child who opts out of school bus transportation. Students will be required to attend at least 70 percent of class throughout the school year.
"This is all new to everyone," said Philadelphia spokeswoman Monica Lewis. "We're doing things that have not been done."
The district hoped enough parents would sign up so that fewer children would ride the bus every day.
"Our main priority is the safety and well-being of students," said Lewis. "We want our families to understand that we're there to support them."
In Watertown, S.D., Danielsen realized that in order to reopen his school buildings, as a committee made up of parents and administrators voted to do, he'd have to somehow cut down on the number of students riding the bus.
Several South Dakota districts in years past have reimbursed parents for driving their kids to and from school, an option provided by state law for several decades now. But more districts considered the option this year, Danielsen said, when they realized it'd be hard to duplicate bus routes.
So far, no parent has asked to be reimbursed by the 4,000-student district, which Danielsen chalked up to parents' heavy reliance on public transportation.
"With our rural nature, if you lived out in the country, have to go to work at 7 and bus stops at 7:30, you're not going to let your kid sit and wait for the bus by themselves," he said. "For a lot of students, the bus is the only way they can get to school."