O.C. School Buses Running on Empty

February is "Love the bus month," according to the National School Transportation Association. But the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County isn't feeling it.

There will be no heart-shaped bus-loving Valentines, no flower garlands or parades of appreciation for their fleet of big yellow buses.

For the most part they will stay parked where they usually are—in the maintenance yard of the Capistrano Unified Transportation Department.

Since a budget shortfall forced the district to cut 70 percent of its home-to-school bus routes in 2008, the yard has come to resemble a yellow school bus retirement community.

Nestled on a beach-adjacent property above the picturesque sands of Capistrano Beach, a fleet of 25 old school buses languish in ghostly repose, driven out only for the occasional field trip.

"Everybody likes the symbolism of the big yellow school bus, but that's paper thin," said Mike Patton, Executive Director of the Capistrano Unified School District Transportation Department.

"When it comes to writing a check, nobody—not the state, not the taxpayers want to pay to keep it around."

So dire is the state's education funding crisis that the yellow school bus—even in a relatively affluent area like Capistrano—has become a dying breed in California. Districts across the state, from Sacramento to San Diego, have slashed bus routes in the last couple years, some eliminating them altogether.

Even before the major budget cuts of 2008-2009, the state ranked last in percentage of school kids that ride the bus: 16 percent against a national average of more than 50 percent.

The state of California does not mandate home-to-school transportation, except for special education, and provides less than 50 percent of the funding for existing programs. The rest comes out of districts' general funds, which also pay for teacher salaries, textbooks and other programs.

"It was either 'Are we going to eliminate optional home-to-school transportation or are we going to eliminate music?'" said Patton.

Capistrano Unified decided to save $3.5 million by cutting 44 bus routes that served 5,000 kids. About 25 surplus buses were sold to area private schools and tour operators and another 25 were designated "active spares" and retired to the bus yard for use on field trips and athletic events.

"We didn't want to dispose of all our assets because we thought we might be able to reverse the cuts someday," Patton said in explaining why the buses remain parked.

But with districts across the state experiencing what Patton calls "financial meltdown," due to continuing state education cuts, the prospects for reinstating bus routes are dim.

"We're in as bad a situation this year as we were when we made these cuts, but transportation cuts can't contribute now."

While the students affected by the Capistrano bus cuts comprise only about 10 percent of the district enrollment of 50,000, much of the slack has been picked up by individual cars, meaning a major increase in traffic around district schools.

"At first parents tried to get together and buy a bus, or charter vans or something, but nothing really materialized," said Patton. "Mostly parents just drive their kids."

Capistrano Unified is still embroiled in litigation with the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita over the pollution and traffic impact generated by the cuts in bus service, which city officials say exceed limits set by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Meanwhile, a local taxi company has marketed itself as a "school taxi van service" to pick up business from the slighted bus riders. But according to dispatchers the program has been canceled due to lack of interest.

It seems that the words "Magic Taxi Van Pool" just don't have that same allure as "Big Yellow Bus."

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It's too bad that so much money in the budget goes to things and people other than students. I hope they can raise enough money for bus service for school and athletics.

Big Mike
CEO of West Valley Detention Center