Fewer students, but little transit savings | SierraSun.com

Fewer students, but little transit savings

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunNorth Tahoe Elementary School students board the bus at a stop in Tahoe Vista Friday morning. Despite more efficient bus routes, the school district still faces higher transit costs because of the mountain weather, large district and exorbitant fuel prices.

Before 2005, Tahoe-Truckee school buses stopped at more neighborhood locations, with fewer students boarding the bus at each stop.

Faced with declining enrollment then as now, trustees for the 11-campus unified school district consolidated bus routes that year to save money. The newer routes have fewer stops, since the district’s new guideline requires a minimum of 10 students at a single location before adding a stop.

The district buses transported 2,209 students per day last year, a drop of 171 students from the year before.

Buses on today’s routes pick up more students, 70 to 75, compared to an average of 50 before the district adopted the new standard. By shrinking route boundaries and making the routes more efficient, the district’s transit department has reduced the number of miles its fleet of buses drive to pick up less students.

The alpine school district’s transit costs regularly exceed available state funding, running up deficits that trustees call encroachments since they erode the district’s overall budget. The transit department ran a $624,125 deficit last year, according to a budget summary presented at a board of trustees meeting Thursday by district Director of Transportation Nanette Rondeau.

While the district collects $5.08 from the state for each mile its buses drive, it costs the district $5.65 a mile to operate the buses.

Rondeau said this year’s costs have risen due to soaring diesel fuel costs, a 12-percent salary raise for all classified employees, and the addition of bus routes for special-education students. Special-education ridership has steadily increased over the last three school years, according to district budget documents.

At the same time, the district has added 10 new buses to its fleet while lowering its maintenance costs. The improvements sliced 19 cents a mile off its operating costs.

The district’s total 2007-08 transportation budget is $2.3 million compared to $1.9 million last year, according to district Assistant Superintendent of Business Earl Wammack.

In a phone interview after last week’s board meeting, Trustee Bev Ducey said many school districts struggle with high transportation costs. But she added that the Tahoe-Truckee district faces the additional expenses because of its extreme mountainous climate and the district’s sprawling boundary.

The district encompasses more than 720 square miles, from Cisco Grove to Floriston, and Emerald Bay to Hobart Mills.

Because of the budget shortfalls, some transportation programs have struggled for money, including those for students participating in team sports.

“Yes, it is underfunded,” said North Tahoe High Athletic Director Joanne Mathis, when asked by phone. “It’s hard, it is really, really hard.”

But, Mathis insisted the school never has denied one of its teams an away game.

Rondeau said the board asked her last year to help form an athletic committee at each high school and middle school to help create a transit budget for extracurricular events. Some of the schools do not have funds dedicated to that use, so it falls on booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations to help pay for it, Rondeau said.

Students are asked to pay up to $150 per sport, according to Scott Everest, North Tahoe High’s former athletic director. Yet, a single bus trip could cost the team as much as $2,200, more than exhausting the student participation fees, he said.

The board will continue to evaluate the efficiency of the district’s transportation, Ducey said.

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