That’s how the Oberlin City Schools’ argument for ending public busing to Lake Ridge Academy has been described by a state hearing officer.
In a Nov. 22 decision, Philip King said he believes it’s practical for taxpayers to foot the bill of transporting private school students to the North Ridgeville private school.
The ruling, in the form of a recommendation to the Ohio Board of Education, carries the weight of law if approved by the state.
Should that happen, the Oberlin school board will consider a court appeal, according to a statement issued Nov. 27.
State law requires public schools to provide busing to other institutions more than two miles away but still within a 30-minute ride. Lake Ridge is about 15 miles — roughly 24 minutes — from Oberlin High School; it’s the district’s longest route.
School board members voted in February to cut the route, calling it “impractical” and costly.
The move was made to cut the transportation budget. The Lake Ridge run cost $33,500 per year, the board argued — about twice as much per rider as it costs to transport kids to Oberlin’s public schools, according to superintendent David Hall.
An average of nine students rode each morning to Lake Ridge and six in the afternoon, according to counts conducted from March to May and again in August.
The district paid around $1,259 to bus each public school student and about $2,410 to bus each private school student.
Hall also said the district has a shortage of drivers, forcing buses to pick up Oberlin students earlier than normal so that Lake Ridge students arrived at school on time. Often, parents of public school students could not be notified of early arrival until 15 minutes prior.
In February, the district chose to give $250 in lieu of busing to parents of each private school rider, which state law allows if the district can prove that the bus route is impractical. It could have offered up to $925, which was the average cost to bus each private school student in the 2015-2016 school year.
Signing up for busing through Lake Ridge would cost parents around $1,800 per student.
Ten of the 14 families rejected the payment and instead said the district could easily cover the cost by making cuts to superfluous spending. They alleged that the district had overpaid about $1 million for bus maintenance over a 10-year period.
The district’s statement shrugs those worries aside and says “the fact still remains that transporting these few students presents an extensive expense and strain on the district’s limited resources.”
In light of the Oberlin City Schools’ five-year financial forecast, the board is forced to make difficult budgetary decisions, it says.
“While the board understands the private school parents’ disappointment with this decision, the fact remains that such transportation was and is impractical under the statutory factors. The board is disappointed that the hearing officer feels the financial impact is not enough to justify ceasing the transportation, but the board is in the best position to make that determination and stands by it.”
District treasurer Angela Dotson asserted that financial hardship is looming. She said the district has a surplus of $4.4 million right now, but the five-year forecast shows the cash balance will be depleted by the end of fiscal year 2021.
Rather than ask taxpayers to pass another levy, Dotson said it’s her goal to cut spending. She cut $208,850 in spending since 2013, including a different bus route costing $30,000.
King concluded that the district is not currently in financial jeopardy. He rejected several of the reasons the school board declared the route impractical, and noted that the potential savings from eliminating the academy bus route “is insignificant compared to the unallocated cash balance held by the district” and represents less than one percent of the surplus.
Oberlin school board president Anne Schaum said no data presented to date discounts that the busing service is impractical.
“While it is true that we currently have a surplus, our five-year forecast demonstrates that additional cost savings or revenue increase are already necessary,” she said. “School funding is a complicated puzzle and the hearing officer should consider both current state and future projections when making financial determinations.”
The hearing recommendation orders the district to continue providing transportation to Lake Ridge Academy. King wrote that even if the arguments had been persuasive, he would have told the district to increase the payment in lieu of busing to $925 to better accommodate the parents.
Sandra Redd, the parent of an Oberlin student who has been vocal about the issue in meetings this year, said she doesn’t know whether she thinks the recommendation is right.
“If you can afford to take your kids to Lake Ridge, then you should provide the transportation,” she said. “We don’t have enough money in Oberlin. Maybe those parents should get together and carpool.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.