Dave Scott

Area school superintendents say they are alarmed by Gov. John Kasich’s proposal to keep the transportation budget unchanged at a time when fuel and equipment costs continue to rise.

The result can be tax increases.

Additionally, the leaders of large districts continue to resent continuing additions to their obligation to transport students to their competitors ­— charter and private schools.

According to Kasich’s budget, the transportation component to the per-student formula for schools will stay at current levels for the next two years — $442 million. Since 2004, the transportation line item has increased 5.2 percent while diesel fuel has gone up 140 percent. That means transportation must be subsidized by other portions of the boards’ budgets.

In the last 10 years, the state also has provided on average $16 million to schools to replace old buses, skipping only one year. Kasich has provided none this year and proposes none for the next two years.

Cuyahoga Falls Schools Superintendent Todd M. Nichols said voters in his district will see the consequences on the ballot.

“Because of funding cuts and those types of things we haven’t replaced any of our fleet — 24-bus fleet — we haven’t replaced any of them in the last several years and that is one of the major reasons we have a permanent improvement levy on the ballot in May,” he said.

It will be a 3-mill permanent-improvement levy for five years and the schools intend to put much of that money into new buses.

Superintendent Russell Chaboudy said Coventry schools are in a similar situation.

“Over the years, we haven’t been able to keep up with our bus fleet,” he said. As a result, the schools have contracted with a private company to handle the buses.

“That was all part of the dwindling money that was coming for transportation and it forced us into that particular issue,” he said. “Who knows what will happen if the increase in fuel continues.”

Coventry schools have failed to pass two ballot issues recently and have two prepared for May. Voters will consider a 5.9-mill, $28.3 million bond issue for construction and repairs and 1.1-mill levy for permanent improvements, including buses. If it passes, Chaboudy said the schools will stop using general fund money on transportation and put it into other education uses.

“What we are trying to show people is that [transportation] has a major impact on our general fund,” he said. “We are spending so much of our money on our buildings that are falling apart that by addressing that issue it puts that chunk of money back in the general fund and we would be able to subsidize some of those things such as fuel and other things that will be a problem down the road.”

Helping for-profit schools

Kathy Kiehl, coordinator of transportation services for Akron Public Schools, said total miles used by the bus fleet have nearly tripled since 2003, reaching 996,884 miles in 2012.

Nearly half of the fleet now serves the 1 in 6 Akron children who don’t attend the public school system: They attend a privately run school.

She said 58 school-board-owned buses are used to transport public school kids and another 31 are used for charter and non-public schools. In addition, the board contracts with Petermann Bus Co. for another 24 buses to take students to charter and non-public schools.

The board pays $347,010 annually to maintain its own buses and Petermann spends another $111,696 on fixes. For all of those buses, $1,157,226 is spent on fuel.

The buses are getting old, too. The average age of an Akron Schools bus is 12.5 years. The oldest is 23 years old.

“Fifty-three buses or 59 percent of our fleet meets the average age requirement of replacement, which is 12 years per State of Ohio,” she wrote in an email. “Cost of a new bus today is about $96,000 each,” she said.

Akron Superintendent David James said the result is that taxpayers are supporting for-profit schools.

“Factoring in maintenance, fuel costs and other expenses, remember that we also have an obligation to transport students who are not even in the APS system — to charter schools,” he said in a prepared statement. “As Ohio allows more vouchers, the number of non-APS transports will rise. And if state reimbursements fall or are frozen, we will — once again — be forced to absorb the added expense at the local level.”

He was not made available for an interview.

State help is elusive

Transportation costs are an item in the overall state budget, but not in the formula used to determine support for individual school systems.

Discerning those costs can be difficult.

Gov. Kasich’s Achievement Anywhere Plan purports to replace $1.2 billion of the $1.6 billion in education cuts made in his first two-year budget. But the governor also has said that $446 million in guarantee funds for public schools like Akron will be phased out starting in the second year of the budget and any increase over the biennium is undercut by $231 million that Budget Director Tim Keen confirmed has been double counted.

Early simulations, which detail district-by-district budget items, do not include transportation costs.

The superintendents and state officials all emphasize that the budget issue is still in flux.

Many Summit County superintendents met with state Sens. Frank LaRose, R-Copley, and Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, last week. The senators both were contacted for this story but said they didn’t know enough about the issue to comment.

Barb Mattei-Smith, Kasich’s assistant policy director for education, said not enough is known about transportation costs statewide to make a final decision.

“One of the issues we had was that we didn’t have recent transportation data, last year’s transportation data, to kind of dig into it,” she said. “We felt that by keeping [the budget line] flat would be the most appropriate response right now. For the last two years, transportation was not just funded on its own, it was just part of the general pot of funds sent. And so we didn’t know how things were changing.”

School treasurers say they are required to send the state a full accounting of transportation spending every year.

Later the governor’s office released the following comment from Mattei-Smith: “Using the existing formula and providing a dedicated payment amount is a better way of reimbursing transportation costs since it separates this funding stream from the classroom funds. School districts that choose to maintain, restore, or increase school bus services will receive a reimbursement in line with previous funding levels.”

Beacon Journal staff writer Doug Livingston contributed to this report. Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or davescott@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.