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April 30, 2013 at 12:44 PM

Seattle Public School students ‘chauffeured’ to school?

School buses are  the typical mode of transportation for public schoolchildren.  (Photo by Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

School buses are the typical mode of transportation for public schoolchildren. (Photo by Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

A KIRO 7 news report about the Seattle Public School using town car services to transport homeless students to school conjured up ugly stereotypes of low-income kids chilling in the back of a limousine while a driver in a chauffeur’s cap ferried them to their destination.  If you’re a parent forced to endure those chilly dark Seattle mornings waiting for the yellow bus, the new story seem to point to something patently unfair.

Moreover, past state audits have criticized  Seattle’s unusually high per-student transportation costs. And for a district no stranger to financial problems and corruption scandals, I can understand why parents might be horrified.

But here’s the reality: Most district students get to school by bus. That includes the estimated 900 students who fall under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act which requires homeless/foster care students to have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including public preschool, that other children have. The district uses approximately 72 town cars or vans a day to transport students. So who’s in those cars? Special education students. Don’t be surprised. That’s for a good reason.Town cars offer a consistency and reliability important to special education students, especially those with autism. The district contracts with two companies, Airport Transporter and American Logistics, and drivers undergo basic training around working wtih special-needs kids. They also meet with parents and set up a routine that makes students comfortable with getting into a strange car and going to school.

Back to the homeless kids at the center of the news. I talked to Bob Westgard, who oversees all transportation for the district. Turns out town cars tend to be the most cost effective for long-term use. The vehicle’s set fee, around $25 plus $2 per mile is cheaper than the $250 to $275 per hour cost of a yellow school bus, according to Westgard. Some districts, such as the Tacoma Public Schools, owns its buses. Seattle does not own a single bus, renting or leasing each one. The logistics of getting to and from school kids who change addresses frequently as they are moved between shelters, foster homes and relatives is not a bid for sympathy for the district, but understanding the complexities of large, urban school systems.

“The law is quite strict about not simply getting them to the nearest school but continue to send them to the school they were originally enrolled in that,” says Seattle School Board Member Michael DeBell. “Logistically, that is a tough challenge.”

The board’s Audit and Finance Committee wants to reduce district transportation spending by $4 million, a goal challenged by the district’s need to address rising enrollment by opening new schools and creating new transportation routes.

Sure the district has transported students to school from as far away as Tacoma and Port Angeles. But federal law gives students the right to stay in their school. That’s a good thing. Students enduring upheaval in their personal lives need stability at school. The law does allow districts to refuse unusual requests, for example, a student moving to Yakima but wanting to stay in the Seattle schools.

Comments | Topics: Education

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