San Diego Unified will soon weigh whether to dramatically cut back on busing, a radical change that could reshuffle students across the school district, plump up neighborhood schools and crimp magnets.

The school board did not decide today whether or not to actually make the cuts. But it asked its staffers to draw up a plan that would pare back busing to the bare minimum over the span of two years, starting this fall. School board member Scott Barnett proposed the idea, pegging the vote for early June.

“Every dollar we use on transportation is a dollar we can’t use to restore a teacher or a nurse or a counselor,” Barnett said during the meeting. He later added, “We can’t have it all.”

Under the plan, buses would only be provided for programs that must be provided under federal law: special education students who are legally entitled to take a bus to get services and students whose schools are failing under No Child Left Behind and take the bus to schools that aren’t. That would strip out integration busing and transportation for kids headed to magnet schools with unique themes.

Doing so would add to the $7.85 million in cuts to busing that are already planned, ending transportation for an estimated 6,000 more students to save another $3.1 million.

Parents from magnet schools argued that since wealthy parents would still find ways to get their children to school, cutting busing would only deprive poorer students of choices and chances across town. They held up yellow signs that read “Bring Our Buses Back.” School board President Richard Barrera, who voted against creating the plan along with Kevin Beiser, said he couldn’t stomach the idea.

“I don’t want to see the Language Academy decimated,” Barrera said, invoking a magnet school near San Diego State University that provides French and Spanish immersion.

Barrera also pointed out that ending busing could lead to dire overcrowding at some neighborhood schools if all bused students come back. High schools could be especially bloated: Lincoln High could gain another 1,120 students if every teen who lost busing came back to their neighborhood school.

Busing has also filled schools that would otherwise be empty. Mission Bay High could lose nearly three out of every four students if most of the buses stopped and students didn’t find another way to get there. Three dozen schools would drop below 60 percent of their capacity.

Barnett argued that many families would figure out a way to send their students anyway. And he said if a bus was already running to take special education or No Child Left Behind students, the school district could allow other students on since it wouldn’t cost more.

Busing is a political powder keg, revered, resented and routine. The school board has stressed that it wants to put neighborhood schools first, strengthening them so nobody feels they have to bus their child to get a good education. But it has had to balance that against the love affair with school choice in San Diego Unified, especially some of its popular magnet schools.

Barnett also proposed a few other possible changes, such as increasing the busing charge to $500 for families that can pay and exploring a voucher system for parents of special education students that could allow families to pay for taxis, mileage or other transportation cheaper than busing.

While San Diego Unified already charges families who aren’t impoverished a fee of up to $340 per child for busing, enforcement has been lax. The school district has only collected $500,000 out of an expected $700,000, Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover estimated. The two-year plan would also include stepping up the enforcement to collect fees.

This is a big deal with a lot of thorny implications. How would cutting back busing affect you? And what unanswered questions do you have? Shoot me an email or post your questions here.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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