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Hail to my temporary overlords! I’m making some calls to try to track down some of your tougher questions. In the meantime, let’s talk about whether San Diego Unified could charge for the school bus to balance its books.

Reader MLK asked:

What is the likel[i]hood of SDUSD charging for busing like some districts have started to do? What would the impacts be?

This is a sticky question. While other school districts have begun charging for busing, San Diego Unified has historically avoided it because the vast majority of busing goes from poorer areas to wealthier ones. Busing is also a stopgap to keep northern schools full and prevent overcrowding in the southern areas of the school districts, where there are too few schools for the number of students. (Check out this article about the issue.) Wrap your brain around this: It is physically impossible for every student in San Diego Unified to go to their neighborhood school.

Last year, San Diego Unified actually spent less money per student on busing than Los Angeles, but more than Long Beach, both of which are often compared to San Diego. But we bus a higher percentage of our kids. There are several reasons why students are bused in San Diego:

  • They are part of a decades-old integration program that mostly brings students from poorer, mostly black and Latino areas, to wealthier areas with more white and Asian residents.
  • They go to magnet schools that draw students from all over the school district, and focus on a specific theme, such as performing arts or Mandarin Chinese.
  • They are leaving schools that have repeatedly fallen short of standardized testing goals under No Child Left Behind. The law requires school districts to offer families this option.
  • They are special education students who attend unique programs that are only offered at a handful of schools. You can’t legally charge families for busing disabled kids to those schools.

The idea of charging families for busing was mentioned — along with just about every other possible solution — at a recent budget workshop for the San Diego Unified school board. Paying for busing didn’t seem to drum up much excitement because it would mean charging people from poorer areas of the city.

Other districts have charged busing fees and exempted poor families, but the sense I get — and I’m not sure on the exact data here — is that that wouldn’t leave a lot of people to charge in San Diego Unified. Roughly 60 percent of all students in the school district qualify for free and reduced price lunches, and in poorer neighborhoods where busing is common, those numbers can run as high as 99 percent.

Keep the questions coming. You can ask for more details or send me on a whole different path by e-mailing me at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

Update: Just heard from San Diego Unified spokesman Jack Brandais, who let me know that the school district isn’t just reluctant to charge for busing: It would be illegal. The programs that have busing are required — special education, integration, No Child Left Behind — so adding a price tag is verboten. What can save money on busing, though, is aligning bell times so that fewer buses are needed. Lining up bells saved $1.4 million for the school district last year, Brandais wrote.

EMILY ALPERT

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