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Clampdown on public buses could jeopardize school ride

According to federal officials, districts like Oakland, Calif., harm private bus firms by using city transit buses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2008

Oakland, Calif.

Like many inner-city students, Keren Osman's school bus isn't yellow. It's a public transit bus. Every morning, the 658 takes her from the poor flatlands of East Oakland up into the posh, eucalyptus-strewn hills where she attends Skyline High School.

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"Most people think our school could be private, it's in such a nice location. And I've been going for two years and don't want to leave," says Keren.

She may not have a ride to school much longer, however, because of a bureaucratic fight brewing between Washington and major cities across the country.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is clamping down on transit bus routes such as the 658 that were created to shuttle schoolchildren. The FTA wants to be sure that federal dollars to city transit systems aren't subsidizing school busing, harming private bus companies' ability to compete.

The push for private competition could sock some of the country's struggling inner-city school systems with a huge new bill, say transit and school officials. Schools without private bus services say they would be "beside themselves trying to establish a bus service this late in the year," says Jim LaRusch, chief council for the American Public Transportation Association.

Oakland Unified School District estimates private busing costs would run into tens of millions of dollars. It already costs $8 million a year to privately transport the district's 1,500 special needs students – a sliver of the roughly 20,000 students that travel daily by public bus.

"It would mean tremendous and unwarranted expense that jeopardizes access to schools for people from underserved communities," says Troy Flint, Oakland schools spokesperson. It's not clear, he adds, if private contractors would provide the same "depth and range of services."

By piggybacking on an existing transit network, Oakland schools can offer a $15 monthly bus pass to students, giving them the flexibility to stay after school. For Keren, that means the chance to participate in volleyball and the Black Student Union.

"I don't think a private entity can do that, charging the school zero, and charging the kids $15 a month, and then providing them with not just school transit but all the other transit we do," says Chris Peeples, board president of AC Transit, which serves Oakland.

As a public entity, he adds, they have community support for special levies to help subsidize student passes. Federal monies for maintenance are also used for buses that primarily transport students – triggering FTA and industry concern.