Hali Bridges is up at 5 a.m. and on a yellow school bus by 6.
Traffic permitting, she’s home by 4:20 p.m.
The 12-year-old spends seven hours at St. Paul, a Catholic school 5 miles away from the Cascade Village apartment she shares with her mother. Bridges spends the rest of her time away on a cold, bumpy Akron Public Schools bus that stops 15 times in the morning, and again in the afternoon, transporting 24 kids who live all over the city.
“I sit in the back and hope for everyone to be quiet,” said Bridges, who quit playing after-school volleyball because there isn’t enough time. “I come home and go straight to bed.”
Back in first grade, the girl’s mother, Aundrey Somerville, took advantage of a state-funded voucher and pulled her daughter out of Akron Public Schools, citing safety concerns. Until taking the bus this year, Mom had driven Bridges to St. Paul every morning then, taking a late lunch, picked her up in the afternoon.
The single mother said city bus rides can foster independence for children and convenience for busy parents who chose an alternative school. But there’s a limit, and Mom isn’t happy with her daughter’s exhaustion or the time wasted sitting idly.
Each day in Akron and across Ohio, millions of public tax dollars are paying for public buses to travel two to four times farther to pick up students who attend private and charter schools.
Disparate state laws that require city school districts to provide transportation for school choice also resulted in the elimination of busing altogether for students in 10 elementary and middle public schools. Because they live conveniently close to their neighborhood schools, these public school pupils don’t qualify for busing under the state’s minimum standards.
Instead, they must walk up to 2 miles, no matter the weather or condition of sidewalks, even as Akron Public Schools must bus children to 29 private and charter schools.
That’s more than the 26 primary schools among the 36 in its own system for which there is some amount of busing.
Walk inside the circle
Ohio law requires each public school district to bus all students, but there are exceptions. If getting to the student takes too much time or expense, parents get gas money.
And if all-inclusive transportation becomes too costly, public schools can eliminate busing for high schools and force K-8 students to walk up to 2 miles.
Urban school districts — where school-choice alternatives prevail — have resorted to the minimum standards for their own in order to bus others.
Meanwhile, the state has determined in the past year that Akron Public Schools has been unjustly asking private students to walk more than a half-mile to makeshift bus stops, a ruling that required Akron to acquire nine more buses to make routes more accommodating for parochial students.
And like charter school students, most private school pupils live farther than 2 miles from their chosen school, making them eligible for the busing they likely wouldn’t receive if still attending Akron Public Schools.
Take Seiberling, for example.
Homes surrounding the elementary school in Goodyear Heights are so close to the school that every student attending Seiberling falls inside a 4-mile circle drawn around the building on a map. Thus, they all walk.
“There are schools that truly do not get buses because none of the kids qualify,” said Debra Foulk, Akron’s business affairs manager.
Meanwhile, the 24 parochial students on Hali Bridges’ bus live all over the city. These students all fall outside the same-sized circle drawn around St. Paul, automatically giving them a free bus ride at the local school district’s expense.
Wheels on the bus
Somerville wants the school district to adjust, and shorten, the route her daughter takes.
That’s not easy to do because the bus actually makes two sets of trips each day: one to St. Paul and another to Mason, an elementary school in Akron Public Schools.
“We’re supposed to use our buses as efficiently and effectively as possible,” so that means using the same bus for more than one school, Foulk said.
The bus first leaves the central garage near Bridges’ home. That’s why she’s the first to be picked up in the morning and the last to be dropped off in the afternoon before the bus retires for the day.
Why it takes so long, though, is a function of school choice.
Bridges’ bus travels 41 miles a day to carry 24 St. Paul kids to and from school. The bus makes another two trips, traveling 18 miles this time, to take 21 Mason kids to and from the public elementary school.
Do the math on an average 180-day school year and the taxpayer-funded bus will travel 4,140 miles more to pick up only three more private students than public students. The Mason route takes a third of the time (30 minutes versus 90 minutes) and requires less than half as much gas and stops (seven versus 15).
The same math that applies to this Akron bus applies to the thousands of privately and publicly owned buses that transported 809,047 Ohio schoolchildren in 2013, the most recent year that state data are available.
The Akron district buses 926 charter students. By opting to transport 311 of their own students, two local charters receive the state transportation aid that would have gone to Akron.
Altogether, 33 percent of charter students and 11 percent public students ride publicly funded school transportation in Akron.
Likewise, 34 percent, or 61,346 parochial students, got subsidized school transportation in the 2012-13 school year. And because buses traveled on average 2 miles per private student and less than 1 for a public school student, twice as many tax dollars afforded public bus rides for private school students.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @DougLivingstonABJ.