Illinois bill to change school district transportation delayed

Manuel Rapada

An Illinois bill that would no longer require certain school districts, including Evanston-Skokie District 65, to provide transportation for students has been put on hold.

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), sponsor of House Bill 5825, said the bill was introduced late into the legislative session, leaving little time for input from school districts. The state senate’s education committee delayed bill consideration on May 8 so that school districts would have the opportunity to weigh in, according to the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

Each year, school districts can submit a claim to the Illinois State Board of Education to receive reimbursement for their transportation expenses. Yet of the approximately $1.2 million that District 65 spends annually on regular transportation, the district receives only about $30,000 in compensation from the state, comptroller Kathy Zalewski said.

“The formula that’s currently in place is such that very little money is reimbursed for regular transportation,” she said, adding that the district uses property tax revenues to cover the remaining costs.

Currently, school districts must provide free transportation to students who live at least one and a half miles away from their school.

However, Evanston Township High School District 202 is not required to provide transportation to students because the school is serviced by CTA bus routes, said Mary Radino, the district’s deputy chief financial officer, on Tuesday. According to the ISBE, districts like D202 may certify that “adequate transportation” is available to students as an alternative to providing busing services.

A state senate committee adopted an amendment to House Bill 5825 on May 1 that would remove the one-and-a-half mile mandate, giving districts the option to charge fees for transportation in order to cover costs not covered by the state, Steans said. If a district adopts this option, students eligible to receive free lunch would be exempted from paying transportation fees.

The only transportation fees currently in place at D65 are for families with magnet school students, Zalewski said. Parents pay for two-thirds of transportation costs, according to the district’s transportation department website. Students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are also eligible for free or reduced transportation fees.

If the mandate is lifted, Zalewski said it would be up to school board members to change the district’s transportation model.

The amendment would also change how districts are reimbursed for transportation costs. Instead of reimbursing districts on a fixed rate, Steans said the amendment would allow the state to reimburse transportation based on the average cost per student or the average cost per mile, whichever would yield the district more money.

Both Steans and Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said this would encourage districts who have above-average costs to provide transportation more efficiently.

“(Under the current system) they could send out a yellow school bus to pick up 15 kids, and they would be reimbursed at the same rate as if they had a 66-person school bus filled with 66 kids,” Vanover said. “There’s no incentive in the formula for efficiency.”

Special education-related transportation would not be affected by this amendment, Vanover said. He said funding to reimburse regular transportation costs has dropped to $205.8 million, 40 percent less than in 2010.

Steans said although the bill would not be reintroduced this legislative session, there may be more interest in giving districts flexibility in providing transportation if transportation funding decreases even further.

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