Mogadore, Cuyahoga Falls, Akron and Barberton schools have more in common than interconnecting county highways. Each community has a school district that buses fewer than one in four students and receives only a small fraction in state money to do so.



In the most pronounced case, the state reimburses less than 25 cents for every dollar Mogadore spends on school transportation, according to finance data from the Ohio Department of Education. Only eight Ohio school districts received a smaller portion of state compensation for transportation costs.



Superintendent Christina Dinklocker expects even less after the Ohio legislature finalizes the state budget sometime in the next few weeks.



“The impact for us, like any school district, is going to be a loss of funds,” Dinklocker said.



Barbara Shaner, associate executive director for the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, lobbied members of the Senate Education Finance Committee last week to increase funding for transportation — one of several items in the state budget she said is not adequately funded yet essential to educational outcomes.



“The availability of safe, reliable transportation services is crucial for student access to a quality education. In some cases, it can mean the difference between a student’s lifelong success and what would otherwise be a lifetime of challenges with no hope for becoming an educated, productive citizen,” Shaner told Senate members.



Those lifelong challenges are seeded in schools with limited access to busing.



A Beacon Journal analysis that compares state data on access to school transportation and academic performance shows that in 41 Ohio school districts — like Akron, Barberton, Mogadore and Cuyahoga Falls — students not only make fewer trips on yellow buses, but they also are more likely to be economically disadvantaged or minorities.



They also have lower attendance rates on average.



In comparison to districts that bus most students, school districts with limited busing have students who are twice as likely to be of color, 1.8 times more likely to be labeled economically disadvantaged and 17 times more likely to drop out.



The cost to transport children in these districts is higher, and they receive less state funding on average.



“It is something that should be addressed in the state budget, frankly,” Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican and chairwoman of Senate Education Committee, said of bolstering transportation funding.



Costs up, riders down



Lehner said rising fuel costs and the advent of charter schools — with students transported by public school districts — have added substantial costs that limit school transportation services.



Between 2005 and 2011, school transportation costs climbed 17 percent while nearly 250,000 fewer public school students rode a yellow bus.



“Maybe we should provide equal funding or at least a modest increase in transportation but not reinvent the formula,” said Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, vice chair of the Senate Education Committee. “I would be surprised if the Senate was not able to provide some additional support for education.”



Gov. John Kasich flat-lined transportation funding in his original budget proposal released in early February. The Ohio House version, relayed to the Senate in April, lumped transportation funding into the per-pupil formula amount, also known as basic aid. By not separating transportation money, which is commonly done, the House appears to have increased transportation funding by $139.3 million over the biennium while cutting overall education funding by at least $70.5 million.



“The governor’s budget and the House budget don’t necessarily include the same categories. And that has made analyzing this budget more difficult than usual,” Gardner said.



“That’s pretty problematic,” said Lehner. Neither the House nor administrative version “works,” she said. And she estimates the $40 million in cuts that the House made to the governor’s plan might actually be deeper.



That’s because the House also capped, or limited, overall funding increases to 6 percent for each district. Some of the poorest school districts in Ohio are capped, leading legislators and school lobbyists to question any perceived increase in transportation aid.



Aging buses are also a growing concern, Shaner said, citing the average bus age of 10 years. Buses typically are replaced after 12 to 15 years of service and bear additional maintenance expenses as they age. But the state budget currently offers no money to purchase new buses.



Across Ohio, state funding to purchase buses zeroed out in 2009 and hasn’t returned.



Cummins Brown, a 23-year mechanic with Cuyahoga Falls schools, sifts through photos of repairs made on a fleet of buses — most built in the late 1990s. The underbelly of No. 10 resembles the ceiling in a rusted out steel mill. Years of kicking up salt created a fist-sized hole in the frame on No. 1, which was pulled from service by the State Highway Patrol recently.



“After they are 10 years old, you’re just chasing after them with money,” Brown said. The newest buses in his garage are about 9 years old. The other half are older than 11.



In lieu of state funding, Superintendent Todd Nichols is urging homeowners to pass a levy Tuesday to generate local funds to replace some of those buses.



Other transportation expenses not provided directly by the state — $332.5 million statewide in 2011 alone —­ also are picked up by local property owners or funneled from general revenue sources that otherwise would fund classroom instruction as fuel costs continue to climb and the number of students riding buses continues to fall.



Parents avoid busing



For Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, the major concern for school transportation in the state budget is an expansion of what is called the “in lieu of transportation payment.”



“It sticks out like a sore thumb,” Sawyer said.



The House version of the budget allows parents to request more than $800 from state funding if they opt out of busing. Currently, school districts offer a lesser amount to students when busing is denied because students live too far away or it takes too long to transport them.



Lehner, Gardner and Sawyer do not think this provision, which expands that payment from $233 to $803, — is fiscally sound.



“It could turn into a cash cow of a sizeable order,” Sawyer said.



With 23,000 students currently receiving this payment, additional expenses borne by school districts under the House plan would eclipse $13.1 million.



“Every dollar that they spend on transportation is a dollar that they don’t spend in the classroom,” Lehner said. “I think we need to find more money for the transportation line.”



Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.