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This Fine City column is part of our new reporting series that explores the different pressures affecting cost of living for San Diegans. View more stories here.
Maribel Castro is a caregiver by trade. She works with children. But because she doesn’t have a car, she relies on others to get her own kids to the classroom.
Castro could let them walk more than two miles to Lincoln Middle School in Oceanside, but doing so would require they cross busy intersections, including train tracks and freeway ramps, during rush hour. She lives in a predominantly low-income Latino neighborhood that’s flanked on the eastern side by Interstate 5 and isn’t easy to get out of on foot.
Like other families in Crown Heights, Castro used to rely on the Oceanside Unified School District for her children’s transportation, but the Board of Education decided years ago it could no longer afford to send the buses. Officials were planning to wind down the service in summer 2020.
It never returned after the pandemic hit.
When students started coming back to campus full-time last year, a neighbor offered to drive Castro’s two middle-schoolers for a price. The single mother has to find $400 every month in her already-modest budget.
“That money could be used for rent or food for my family,” she said.
Castro isn’t alone. Transportation is a burden on most families — the second highest expense on average and one of the factors driving San Diego County’s extreme cost of living, which has forced many to move farther and farther out. But being in a more urban environment, closer to one’s destination, doesn’t necessarily alleviate the problem if the geography is prohibitive and public agencies aren’t willing or required to provide assistance.
Dozens of parents in Oceanside, many of whom are employed in industries that pay low and minimum wages, have struggled to make ends meet as yet another portion of their income gets siphoned off.
Following the school bus cuts, a private network of drivers — known as raiteros — has sprung up. Friends and acquaintances, some of whom have children themselves, agreed to help, but declined to do it for free.
Many of the parents I spoke to acknowledged that at least some of the ride-givers were coming from a good place, putting the needs of their neighbors over profit, but still considered their services to be exploitative and risky. Parents also raised questions about the consistency and safety of the vehicles taking their children to and from campus.
Now that in-person learning has resumed, community members are demanding, as they did in the months leading up to the pandemic, the district bring the school buses back and by extension end the ride-giver system. They’re arguing that the disappearance of the school buses created a barrier to a public good and forced them to make sacrifices at home.
“It’s gotten out of hand,” said Karen Plascencia, an organizer with the grassroots Human Rights Council of Oceanside. “These are working families who deserve a free education.”
The district’s leaders have portrayed the school bus cuts over the years as the tough but fiscally responsible thing to do, citing labor negotiations, a decline in enrollment as charters became more popular and a warning from the state that they were teetering toward insolvency. The district’s latest budget shows it’ll need to find an additional $8.7 million to meet its reserve requirement by the 2023-24 school year or face further cuts.
District officials haven’t been unsympathetic. They kept sending buses to Crown Heights longer than most neighborhoods, waived the cost of the final year and warned parents 12 months in advance that the cuts were coming. But regardless of their efforts or intention, officials today are effectively passing the cost of transportation down to people who can least afford it.
The cuts affected students from across the city, but the pushback has come in large part from the Crown Heights neighborhood. In 2019, Plascencia and others organized protests outside school board meetings. They also staged a collective demonstration to highlight the difficulty of walking to Lincoln Middle School, going up a hill and passing the site of a recent vegetation fire.
There was even talk of a walkout to maximize the pressure on the district, but it never materialized.
A big part of the problem in Crown Heights actually stems from the state. While others treat school buses as an entitlement, California gives local districts the discretion to decide which students are worthy of transporting and the ability to reduce the overall cost by sending families a bill.
As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the state provides some money for school transportation but the funding level has barely changed since the 1980s, despite an uptick in demand. The Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2014 called the state’s funding formula for transportation “outdated and irrational.”
Busing has long been offered as a solution for students who live far away from campus. As the state becomes more urbanized, there are certainly more options today than in the past. Even so, transportation remains a consistent obstacle to the classroom, particularly for students of color who, the Mercury News noted earlier this year, are more likely to have an unexcused absence on their record.
Because of the disparities that a lack of school bus transportation has reinforced, lawmakers in Sacramento are rethinking their role and responsibility. Earlier this year, Sen. Nancy Skinner from Berkeley introduced a bill that would create a new transportation fund at the state level and require school districts to offer buses to every student, or partner with local transit agencies to close the gap. In a press release, Skinner drew a link between busing, attendance, graduation rates and poverty.
Thanks to federal rules, Oceanside Unified continues to provide busing to select groups of students, including foster youth and those with special needs. The total cost of those services is approximately $5 million annually.
“The district provides transportation to students when it is written in their [individual education plan] and does not have the capacity to provide transportation beyond that,” wrote Donald Bendz, the district’s director of communications, in an email.
In 2019, the district estimated that it would need $114,000 to keep the buses going for another year in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Since then, and to the frustration of community members, the district has twice approved raises for staff that far exceed the cost of Crown Heights buses.
School board member Eric Joyce, who represents Crown Heights and other neighborhoods, told parents at a recent meeting that he was encouraged by the conversation taking place in Sacramento.
“There actually has been talk for the first time in decades about getting transportation money back in the budget,” he said.
But assuming the governor comes through, the money wouldn’t be available for months. If approved and signed into law, Skinner’s bill wouldn’t go into effect until the 2023-24 school year.
For a while, parents in Crown Heights had been helping to subsidize the cost of the school buses, paying less than what they pay many of the ride-givers now. But even that chapter of Oceanside’s history is fraught.
As the Union-Tribune revealed in the midst of the protests, some Crown Heights residents had provided free labor to earn a discount on bus fees. Women in the community had a long tradition of going out once a month to pick up trash and sweep streets, but they began to interpret the neighborhood improvements as a condition for keeping the school buses around. One middle schooler told a reporter she helped her mother scrub floors and windows at a local community center.
Money to offset the bus fees had come to the district through the city. Both the district and the city, however, said it had no knowledge of the work requirement. A nonprofit had served as the intermediary for years. The city said it shut the program down.
Around the same time, the district also opened up a process by which students could transfer to a middle or elementary school that was closer. Doing so would shorten the commute, but if a parent wasn’t willing to let their child cross other busy intersections, they’d still have to find transportation. The underlying issue remained in place.
Complaints about the ride-giver system aren’t just related to costs. The school buses would show up at roughly the same time every day driven by a licensed professional. But if a ride-giver is sick or has surgery, all bets are off. The family is back to square one.
Some Oceanside parents — not just those in Crown Heights — have elected instead to send their children to school by public transit. A monthly fare for people under 18 starts at $23. It’s a cheaper option but, as Eveldina Acosta knows, not always convenient.
The stay-at-home mom lives a couple miles east of Crown Heights and used to rely on a neighbor for her children’s transportation. She and her husband, who works in construction, stopped paying when they could no longer afford it. If they couldn’t find the money every Friday, the ride-giver wouldn’t show the following week.
The parents were also turned off by the number of children who were being stuffed into every available inch of space to accommodate the demand. Acosta once counted 10 kids in a single vehicle.
“The lady … sent my son to the back, where you put the shopping bags,” she said.
These days, her two teenagers take public transit to school, which adds considerable time to their commute. What should only take a few minutes by car now takes upwards of an hour with all the transfers. One of Acosta’s daughters, she said, gets up around 5 a.m. during the week to get ready and catch an early bus because the later ones tend to fill up.
On a recent visit to Oceanside, I heard a range of opinions inside Crown Heights. One resident told me he’d raised money for a used van that could hold up to 15 children. The vehicle still needs a bit of work and it was sitting idle on a street corner. The original plan was to crowdfund the purchase of two or three vans total, but support from the wider community just wasn’t there.
Parents and activists said they feared that the creation of their own fleet would give the district an excuse not to revive the official school buses.
Not all the ride-givers charge exorbitant sums. Nataly Sanchez, another caregiver, drives her 7th grader every school day and said she began offering rides to other students after their parents asked her to. Rather than a flat rate, her price is open-ended. Parents are encouraged to give only what they can afford. Some offer as little as $25 a month, which comes out to about $1 per day. It helps her cover the skyrocketing cost of gasoline.
“A lot of families living in my neighborhood struggle,” she said. “I know the struggle, too, so I try to help them out with what I can.”
But Sanchez is only capable of doing that because she has a car in the first place.
“If I could give rides, I would,” said Lleymi Martinez, an assistant at the Crown Heights Community Resource Center, which has been the site for much of the organizing over the past few years.
Martinez helps in a different way — by sitting down with parents and mapping out the best route for students to get safely to school using public transit. Transportation is a constant topic of conversation in the community, she told me, and it’s left a lot of parents feeling resigned.
Her job gives her a window into the various camps and she knows that some of the ride-givers, like the parents, are propelled by a similar need to survive. She’s convinced that the struggle taking place in Oceanside extends well beyond the city’s boundaries.
“It’s not just a Crown Heights issue,” she said. “It’s all around the county.”
Adriana Heldiz contributed to this column.