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Busing kids to after-school programs not inefficient

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

The issue: The Board of Education for the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools has rejected a request by district officials to either charge for or end altogether the transportation service ECPPS now provides to the after-school programs sponsored by three local nonprofits.

Our position: The board made the right decision. District officials should look for other ways to improve transportation efficiency. State officials should stop considering transport to after-school programs “inefficient.” 

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools officials are learning that effectiveness sometimes can be the enemy of efficiency, at least when it comes to school transportation costs.

ECPPS officials recently were advised the district’s transportation efficiency rating issued by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction had fallen to 70 percent. That’s not a small matter given the fact school districts’ state funding to operate school buses is based on that rating. Districts with better efficiency ratings receive a bigger share of the state dollars allotted to school transportation; those with lower efficiency ratings — presumably as a stick to punish inefficiency — get fewer of those dollars.

ECPPS’ lower transportation efficiency rating is now costing the district significant state dollars annually, school officials said. That’s a big deal for any school district, but especially one like ECPPS which has numerous needs but limited local resources to pay for them.    

To boost the district’s rating and recover those dollars now being lost, school officials obviously are looking for areas where they can reduce costs and improve efficiency. One such area is the use of district school buses to transport students to three after-school programs. Currently district buses ferry students to the after-school programs operated by the Elizabeth City Boys & Girls Club, the Albemarle Family YMCA, and Girls Inc., including students who don’t live on those buses’ scheduled route. Because this transportation is provided at no charge to students or the three nonprofits, it’s easy to see how this extra driving can affect the district’s transportation efficiency rating.

ECPPS officials estimate only between 3 percent and 5 percent of the district’s efficiency deficit is caused by this extra driving. Nonetheless, they recently recommended four options to the school board that would either end the practice or require the nonprofits to start picking up the cost next school year.

For at least one of the nonprofits, Girls Inc., the loss of ECPPS transportation to its after-school program would result in it having to close its doors, the agency’s representatives told district officials. Another, Albemarle Family YMCA, reminded district officials that it already provides swimming lessons to all ECPPS elementary schools at no cost — roughly 425 kindergarteners. 

While appreciative to ECPPS transportation staff for looking for ways to improve efficiency and get back the state dollars the district’s now losing, school board members don’t think charging nonprofits a transportation fee or ending the service altogether is the answer. As board member Barry Overman noted, the district has worked hard to develop community partnerships, including with the three nonprofits, that provide services and programs beneficial to ECPPS students. If anything, the district needs to be doing what it can to get more kids enrolled in the nonprofits’ after-school programs, he said.

We agree. The loss of state funding is obviously a significant concern. It is not being largely driven, however, by providing bus service to the three nonprofits’ after-school programs. As district officials acknowledged, there are other factors responsible for a larger share of the district’s overall efficiency deficit. The district needs to work on changing those factors instead of going after low-hanging fruit and either ending the transportation service or charging for it.

The larger issue here, of course, is the fairness of how North Carolina funds school transportation. The state should have a system that allocates funding to school districts based on their particular transportation needs, not a perverse one that penalizes them for so-called inefficiencies. Obviously we want our schools to be good stewards with tax dollars, but do we really want a system that takes away money if they choose to drive students to after-school programs — programs designed, after all, to enhance student performance in the classroom, programs that can potentially reduce the costs of remedial education to taxpayers? How can anyone possibly describe that as inefficient?

State lawmakers are often fond of fixing problems that don’t exist. Here’s a real one staring them in the face.

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