State law, cost keep some Butler County high schools without busing

If the Christmas wish list for some Lakota high school parents included getting busing back for their children, they might as well cross that off for this year and perhaps many more.

Lakota Local Schools eliminated high school busing to its two schools — Lakota East and Lakota West — in 2011 as part of sweeping and historic budget cuts.

But a half-decade later — and despite passage of a new operating levy in 2013 — Lakota remains the only district among Ohio’s top-10 largest school systems to not provide high school busing.

And Lakota is not alone in Butler County.

The 10,000-student Fairfield City Schools has the 17th largest enrollment in Ohio and also has had no high school busing since 2011.

The transportation decision in 2011 by Lakota officials came amid a series of school operating levy defeats at the ballot and was part of more than $20 million in program and personnel cuts in the Butler County district prior to passage of a new operating tax in 2013.

The move still impacts more than 5,300 high school students annually at the 16,500-student Lakota district, which is the eighth largest in Ohio.

A recent cold afternoon saw Lakota West High School parent Leslie Brankamp sitting behind the wheel of her 2012 Yukon XL in the school’s parking lot waiting to pick up her children. One of the main reasons Brankamp’s family bought the eight-person SUV was to drive her teens — and others in her neighborhood’s school car pool — to and from the West Chester Twp. school.

Brankamp has two children at this school and they have never had bus transportation to Lakota West.

“It’s difficult with schedules and working parents and trying to get to and from school with different schedules,” she said. “It is frustrating to not have a bus.”

Others share her frustration.

“I know the lack of busing for high schoolers is a major concern to parents. I do understand the frustration of parents with this issue,” Lakota school board member Ray Murray said. “I had a child going into high school at the same time that we cut busing and it was hard trying to figure out how to get her to school and back. There are no real easy choices and particularly with a household with working parents.”

State law, cost keep high school busing parked

The main obstacles, said Lakota officials, are state law, cost and the expansive, geographic reality of Lakota Schools covering 63 square miles of two of Ohio’s largest townships.

In Ohio, public school systems are only required to provide busing to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. But if a district decides to exercise its local option of providing high school busing, which most of the state’s 613 districts do, the state mandates the school system must also provide busing to private school students residing in the district to any private school within a 30-mile radius of that family’s home.

Busing private school students would cost Lakota an additional $2.8 million annually from its $156 million yearly operating budget, according to district officials.

“When high school busing was available, a significant number of students did not take advantage of the service because they had their own transportation,” said Chris Passarge, Lakota’s Chief of Operations. “To avoid lengthy commutes, that translates to lots of half empty buses transporting students who opt to use it.”

“We understand the burden no busing puts on some of our older students, but at this time, we are not discussing the return of busing for high school students,” Passarge said.

Voter approval of a new operating levy in 2013 restored some busing to other grades and reduced the busing radius restrictions district officials had placed around many of its 22 schools.

But, said Lakota Board of Education President Lynda O’Connor, given the realities of school funding in Ohio, where districts relay largely on local tax revenue to pay for schools, the restoration of high school busing isn’t on the horizon.

“We’ve made a lot of strides toward restoring student services, including transportation, in a way that doesn’t jeopardize our long-term financial stability. But adding high school busing to the mix, especially with the state requirements for transporting students to area private schools as well, comes with a tremendous financial burden to the school district,” O’Connor said.

The busing situation at other schools

In 2011, adjacent Fairfield City Schools — where 2,400 students attend high school — also saw high school busing eliminated.

Fairfield officials immediately made it clear to residents the future of high school busing.

“When we eliminated busing at the high school effective with the 2011-2012 school year, families were told that it would not be brought back,” said Fairfield Schools spokeswoman Gina Gentry-Fletcher.

Like Lakota, the decision to cut high school busing came during a string of levy defeats for Fairfield.

The Ohio Department of Education does not keep data on which of the state’s 613 school districts provide busing for high school students. But a review of Ohio’s 25 school systems with the highest enrollments, show that four others — besides Lakota and Fairfield — do not provide transportation for students in grades nine through 12.

Parma Schools near Cleveland — the 13th largest in Ohio — is next after Lakota to do without high school buses.

Elsewhere in Southwest Ohio, Hamilton County’s Northwest and Oak Hills schools and Clermont County’s West Clermont Schools are the remaining, top-25 enrollment districts to go without busing for grades nine through 12.

“There are many high schools across the state that do not offer transportation service to their high school students,” Gentry-Fletcher said. “The top reason is due to the cost for personnel, buses, maintenance, etc.”

The head of Lakota’s governing board said it’s a tough but necessary call.

“Like any decision we face as a school board, we always look at the impact on families but we also have to weigh priorities and make sure we’re delivering on our core work to provide students with the best possible education,” O’Connor said.

“We have to stretch every dollar to impact as many students as possible and it’s critically important we do this while living within our means,” she said.

Marla Berger, who recently idled her car outside Lakota West while waiting to pick up a student, said, “it’s a big inconvenience for a lot of the parents and the community itself.”

“It’s time consuming more than anything. I think they (Lakota officials) have given up on it and part of it is when you do something long enough, you just get used to it. That’s the unfortunate part,” Berger said.

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