Ocean View School District officials will provide busing from Harbour View Elementary School to Marine View Middle School at a subsidized fee, following increased pressure from parents demanding safe and affordable transportation for their children.
These parents have been showing up at the last couple of meetings and emailing school board trustees, urging them to bring back the transportation services for all students while officials have said the district doesn’t have the money for it or the drivers.
The parents are worried for the safety of their children going to and from school and say the end of bus services has caused drop off and pick ups at the school to be a disaster and a serious safety hazard.
“You want our kids to show up and learn and be happy and healthy. Well, then provide transportation to get them there,” Erin Eisenback, who identified herself as a single mom, said at the school board meeting Tuesday.
Trustee Gina Clayton-Tarvin confirmed Wednesday in a phone call that a student riding their bike to Mesa View Middle School was hit by a car last week but is doing okay.
It’s not just about safety, parents say.
Single parent and dual income families are also stressing out about having to pick up and drop off their kids at school while juggling the responsibilities of working to provide for their children.
Heather Lenore, a mother in the district, has started a petition demanding their elected trustees bring back bus services for all students after the district stopped them last year because of the pandemic and the cost.
“With close to 600 signatures and growing in a very short amount of time, it’s obvious that many in the community agree that transportation services are vital to get our children to school safely,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“If you truly care about the children in this community, you will find a way to improve and expand the services offered rather than make dramatic cuts and adversely impact our families,” Lenore said.
Under pressure from parents, the board has agreed to provide one new route at a subsidized cost of $600 annually as soon as the district can get a driver.
Trustees received an update on the transportation situation at Tuesday’s board meeting and through consensus approved the new route and directed staff to look into providing buses at the subsidized cost in areas where there is high interest for transportation.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and keep an eye on high interest areas. Right now the high interest of the families that we received was specifically Marine View so that is the one route that we’re currently working on,” board President Patricia Singer said in a Wednesday phone call.
The service will include a 25% discount for low-income families and transportation needs will be reviewed annually.
“It is also important to reiterate to families that this is not going to happen immediately because of the short staffing and obstacles in finding bus drivers,” said Singer at Tuesday’s meeting.
Trustees Jack Souders, Clayton-Tarvin and Singer supported the $600 yearly fee while Trustee John Briscoe supported an $1,000 annual fee — another option before the board.
Despite his support, Souders questioned what the decision would mean for equity among students in the district where bus routes may not be offered.
“How do we justify that in terms of not spending that money on any other child in the district?” he said. “There’s an issue there if we’re talking about equity.”
Trustee Norm Westwell cautioned the board on making decisions by consensus rather than through a vote.
“The board should have issues put before us where we take action and vote on them,” he said. “I don’t support the $600 — any of these fees — I think it’s too much. We’re taking it up too fast.”
Gigi Nguyen, a single mom in the district, said in a phone call Wednesday that $600 was still too expensive.
“Your benchmark should be $400, not $600. That’s how I look at it,” she said, pointing to the bus fees paid at the Irvine Unified School District.
Clayton-Tarvin said if parents struggle to pay the fee, they need to reach out to the superintendent.
“Maybe at some point, it needs to be brought back to the board but for now, a decision has been made,” she said, adding that the district wishes they could pay for everything but state and federal lawmakers are not prioritizing busing for all.
Before bus services ended, it cost $90 a year for parents.
School board trustees decided to gut some of their bus services at the end of the 2019-2020 school year because of the cost, a shortage of bus drivers and because of the pandemic.
Superintendent Carol Hansen said at the meeting that transportation costs around $1.8 million to $2.2 million annually and that school districts are not required to provide buses except for a few exceptions like students with special needs.
She said four out of five neighboring school districts in the Huntington Beach area also don’t provide transportation and said contracting out for one bus route would cost the district $113,000 annually.
Some parents feel as though the decision to cut some of the bus services was not well communicated to them by district trustees and happened during the pandemic when kids were learning from home.
“We were all under a pandemic, something we’ve never experienced so it really felt like it was kind of slid under the rug for us. We didn’t have any real formal notification sent to the parents,” Angela Zenzola, a Marine View School parent, said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Trustees have argued that cutting transportation services was a matter of fiscal responsibility.
“This fee transportation is an unfunded liability. So it is something that the community does need to recognize and we understand that it is a safety issue and we want to make sure that we take care of our students. It is something that is a difficult choice,” Trustee Singer said Wednesday.
Parents, who see transportation as an essential part of ensuring their children get an education, view the lack of bus services as a mismanagement of the budget.
Trustee Westwell said it’s the choices the board has made, including “huge” salary increases to employees, that have landed the district in the situation.
“We chose to take the money from one pot and put it in another pot for salaries. That’s why we don’t have money for the buses; that and COVID and there’s some other things,” he said. “It’s crocodile tears that I hear from staff and other board members saying we just don’t have the money. It’s by our own doing.”
Clayton-Tarvin said the district has not given huge raises to staff and that they are in a district with the lowest paid salaries in Orange County.
Some parents have pointed to other districts in the county that offer bus services to all students.
“Other non-rural school districts in Orange County like Irvine, they’re able to budget and find ways to transport their kids. In Irvine, they offer extensive multiple school bus routes pickup and their annual fee is $390,” Nguyen, the mother, told trustees at the meeting.
In phone interviews earlier this month, Trustees Briscoe and Clayton-Tarvin said there are alternatives to riding a school bus, such as utilizing a before- and after-school program, carpooling, having students walk together to school and making use of a free Orange County public bus pass.
But those alternatives, parents say, don’t alleviate their safety concerns.
“If you want to eliminate busing, then you need to consider redistricting so that children will not have to walk, bike such far distances. Sending our children on the city bus with destitute often drug-induced individuals who can be possible sex offenders or child predators is not a legitimate choice of transportation,” Nguyen said.
Surveys about busing were sent out after the school board meeting on Sept. 14 when around 16 people wrote in or spoke during the meeting for the need for bus services.
The survey asked if parents from Marine View Middle School were willing to spend $250 a month for transportation from Harbour View Elementary School. It also asked if parents would be interested in a $335 per month supervised before- and after-school program.
Zenzola, the Marine View parent, said at Tuesday’s meeting that some parents were so insulted by the price they didn’t even bother to respond to the survey.
Some parents also criticized the price at the meeting.
“We’re here because we want school buses for our kids that’s affordable — $2,500 annually, compared to $300- $400 from other schools, that’s unacceptable,” Nguyen said.
Parents like Nguyen are pointing to the federal coronavirus relief money the district is getting as a possible solution to funding the bus services.
Superintendent Hansen said the relief funds could be used to subsidize busing but the money is for a limited time only and has to be spent in the next couple of years.
The district, however, is providing bus services for some students, including those at Oak View School and children with special needs. Busing for students with special needs is required by law.
Oak View students — many of whom are both Latino and Title One or low income pupils — are being sent to four different schools after trustees voted decades ago to spread the students around to prevent a segregation lawsuit against the district.
Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students who are experiencing homelessness must be provided bus transportation. The act’s definition for homelessness includes two or more families living under one roof.
This applies to some of the students at Oak View.
Still some parents have called the options for buses for only select students a form of discrimination.
Trustee Westwell said the district is discriminating against various community members and suggested the district end busing for Oak View students.
“We’re either going to bus all our students and have equality for all of our students or we shouldn’t have any, that’s what discrimination is,” he said. “And so if we have a problem with perceived discrimination over at Oak View, perhaps we need to take some other action besides busing.”
Clayton-Tarvin disagreed and argued that Oak View students get funding through the McKinney-Vento Act and the Title One funding formula.
“If the other students were allotted those funds, it would change everything,” she said.
“No child in Oak View has ever said ‘can I be a Title One kid?’ No one’s ever said ‘can I be homeless? I’d like to live with three families piled up so that I can get free busing.’”
The board is set to hold its next meeting on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.