Transportation costs are threatening public school budgets.
Districts are suffering from a bus driver shortage, the product of an array of factors, not least of which is Iowa’s low unemployment rate and overall worker shortage. School districts are competing with other labor-strapped employers.
The work shifts for bus drivers often are split between morning and afternoon, making it difficult to coordinate with other part-time jobs. Many districts are not able to offer full-time salaries or benefits to attract workers from the private sector.
The pool of potential applicants is also limited by the requirement for a commercial driver’s license and mandatory training from the state.
School districts of all sizes have struggled to attract enough qualified drivers, but the problem is particularly acute at many rural school districts, many of which have shrinking enrollment, but still cover vast geographic areas.
Last fiscal year, at least 45 school districts used 10 percent or more of their general fund dollars on transportation, and in one district it was nearly 18 percent, according to Rural School Advocates of Iowa.
To cope, school districts and transportation contractors have offered signing bonuses for new drivers. Some districts even are calling on other school staff members to help cover routes. Neither is a sustainable long-term solution.
Indeed, there is no quick fix, but there are may be a few ways to ease transportation directors’ anxiety.
State policymakers could start by adequately funding Iowa’s public schools. Educators and administrators overwhelmingly agree that the 2 percent increase in supplemental state aid offered by Republican lawmakers this year is not sufficient to maintain and expand their educational programs.
Property-poor districts that don’t generate sufficient revenue from their equipment levy are forced to rely on the general fund to cover transportation expenses. That money otherwise would be used to pay teachers, develop curriculum or buy new technology.
Perhaps the easiest measure politically is to extend the state’s one-cent sales tax for school facilities and equipment. The Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, tax is set to expire in 2029, so unless it’s extended this is the last year districts can budget for that revenue in their 10-year plans.
SAVE can help pad transportation budgets, but it goes only so far. While the revenue can be used for transportation equipment, it cannot be used to pay drivers.
In each of the past two budget cycles, lawmakers have approved additional money for school transportation totaling nearly $20 million.
Those are welcome and much-needed contributions. We hope future legislatures uphold the commitment to keep that funding intact.
All these funding streams are crucial to school districts, but there is one thing individual Iowans can do to help get our children to school safely — apply to be a bus driver.
Given the hiring requirements and time demands, it’s not a perfect fit for everyone, but might be a great opportunity for retirees, stay-at-home parents and others with flexible schedules. Many bus drivers say it’s a fun and rewarding job.
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Updated on April 15: A previous version of this editorial mischaracterized transportation equity funding approved this year by the Legislature. Legislative leaders say it is now a permanent funding stream.