RALEIGH — Before Chris Malone won election to the Wake County school board last fall, he predicted that the system could save as much as $20 million annually by replacing diversity-related busing with a community-schools assignment system.
Last week, Malone's prediction was far less specific. He said only that the savings from cutting busing based on diversity would be "substantial," the same description used by John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, the Raleigh-based conservative think tank.
The question of future busing costs holds few certainties, but one is that Wake's financially stressed system will continue to transport tens of thousands of students by bus to get them to school. Another is that any savings in the state's $45 million portion of the schools' transportation costs of about $56 million would revert to the state.
Whether eliminating diversity as a factor will mean more money for the school system is hard to tease out, given the size and complexity of Wake's school bus operations and the factors other than diversity that transportation planners already deal with, from busing kids to magnet schools to relieving overcrowding caused by growth.
As Wake moves to community-based student assignments, many questions remain: Will magnet schools survive and, if so, how will students get to them? How much growth is coming, and how will it be met under a community-schools model? How much busing will be needed to get students to the next-closest school if their "neighborhood school" is already at capacity?
"I believe there will be savings; what the number is, I can't tell you," Malone said last week. "We'll determine that during the planning process."
On Tuesday, the nine-member board will vote for the second time on a framework for ending the system's decades-old practice of busing some students to keep individual school populations in racial or socioeconomic balance.
"For 30-something years, we have meant a certain thing by 'busing' -busing for a purpose other than getting kids to schools," said Hood, with the John Locke Foundation. "The anger has to do with being forced to do it."
The new plan specifies community-based student assignments, but it offers little detail about what effect the change will have on busing, other than to call for "effective and efficient" use of resources.
But a look at busing costs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County schools, North Carolina's second-largest district behind Wake, shows that the cost of busing has continued to rise since the Charlotte system abandoned race-based assignment in 2002. Charlotte's school system, with a higher percentage of low-income students, now pays about the same amount for busing as Wake even though the Charlotte system has fewer students.
$280K or $18 million?
The idea that ending busing for diversity will free up money that could be used for classroom instruction emerged often during last fall's heated school-board elections.
Eric Blau, a backer of the new majority and a member of the Wake Schools Community Alliance steering committee, was one of those who estimated savings for the schools at as much as $18 million, a figure he stands by.
"I think we should spend the money on actually educating kids instead of busing them throughout the county," Blau said.
Disagreements over what "diversity-based" busing really means tends to cloud the discourse about possible effects on funding if it's discontinued.
Wake schools administration staff say "busing for diversity" only amounts to half of one percent of all busing. Eliminating it would save only $280,000 annually, Wake schools staff told board members last year.
But that definition - students sent to a remote school chiefly to help diversity numbers - excludes the transportation of the roughly 10,000 magnet-school students who are bused from all over Wake County to create balance at inner-city schools. It also leaves out students who are bused to a non-neighborhood school to meet several goals, which could include diversity, school capacity or other factors.
"There are so many variables because of where growth is and where schools are," said Derek Graham, transportation section chief at the state Department of Public Instruction. "I'm not sure that it's possible for every child to attend the school that's closest to his or her home, because of where the schools are.
"To really quantify the savings, you have to develop the transportation plan and see where you are."
School district transportation planners will be asked to design system changes, many of which won't occur until the 2011-2012 school year, during the next nine to 15 months.
"I don't buy the argument that they are going to save a significant amount of money," said Tim Simmons, communications director of the Wake Education Partnership, a business-backed advocacy group that has supported Wake's existing diversity plan.
"We already know where the kids live and where the schools are located. There's a mismatch because of the way the county has grown up and where land is available."
Few would stop riding
Bob Snidemiller - Wake's senior director of transportation, operations and finance - wouldn't even hazard a guess as to whether the county can save money by cutting diversity-related busing. He's committed to following the board's parameters and trying to maintain the busing system's 100 percent efficiency rating with the state.
More than 70,000 Wake students ride buses daily and most of them will continue to do so, even if on shorter routes. Theoretically, creation of community assignment zones could mean more students live within the 1.5-mile area around a school in which families have to fend for themselves if there's a walkable route.
"In general, you are going to lose state funding if you are transporting fewer students - if they bike, walk, carpool," Snidemiller said.
Kristen Stocking, a Holly Springs parent and co-founder of the activist group Wake Schools Community Alliance, said those who campaigned for the eventual majority in last year's school board elections "threw out some figures" on bus savings but didn't view them as crucial to the debate.
"The overarching concern was with fiscal responsibility in general," she said.
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