Although passage appears unlikely this year, one local superintendent has major concerns about an effort to make it easier for students to cross school district boundaries to attend a public school closer to home.
Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer told The Missourian while she apprecates families’ dislike of long bus rides it’s certainly not uncommon in many rural school districts and the broader implications, especially financial, on districts is unclear at best.
A bill that would change the law to make it easier for a child to attend a public school in another district if it’s closer to home stalled earlier this week in the Senate and its sponsor, Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, said passage appears unlikely. The Legislative session ended at 6 p.m. Friday.
The provision would allow the transfer if the driving distance to one’s home school is at least 17 miles and another district’s school is at least seven miles closer.
For the Washington School District, which is more than 260 square miles and takes in parts of three counties, a long bus ride for outlying students attending the middle school or high school located in Washington, is not uncommon. For younger students, the driving distances are ususally not a problem because the district has eight elementary schools spread out through its boundary area.
VanLeer said it’s the student’s home school district that has to pay the tuition when they are allowed to attend another district.
The district is already familiar with that scenario and currently is paying for six students who live in St. Albans to attend Rockwood public schools in St. Louis County. St. Albans is about 18.8 miles from Washington High School and Middle School.
The home district still receives revenue for the child through the state’s education funding formula, but VanLeer said there’s still an impact.
“We look at revenues and expenditures as a whole,” she said. “And it’s not just St. Albans where kids have long bus rides. There are other areas (in the district) where students could be eligible for a transfer under this new rule.”
And for districts that take in the transfer students, there are concerns about class size and space, as well as who would provide the transportation for those students and who selects what school they attend.
Currently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education determines whether students qualify for a transfer under what is considered a travel hardship. Officials typically approve requests if a student is traveling 75 minutes or more to get to school.
Although the six St. Albans students were able to attend Rockwood schools this year, the Washington School District has made adjustments to its bus routes in that area and the bus ride is now about 31-35 minutes to the middle school and high school, far under the 75 minutes to qualify for a travel hardship.
VanLeer said adding another bus route was costly and that’s on top of the tuition being paid for the six students.
Because of the route changes, the state education department denied three other transfer requests and VanLeer said the state may now insist the six students who attended the Rockwood schools this year go back to the Washington schools. The travel hardships are valid for only one year at a time, she added.
“I hope this latest bill doesn’t go anywhere,” VanLeer said. “I think it’s poorly thought out and the future impact on schools is unknown.”
The superintendent said distance to schools is something all potential homebuyers should weigh when buying in a particular area. She also pointed out that there will always be the issue of students who live near the outer edges of a school district’s boundary.
“When you’re buying a home, your real estate agent and developer clearly state what school district you’re in,” she added.
Some say changes to the law also could lead to developers targeting a certain area where homeowners could benefit from a lower tax rate of one school district while their children attend another.
Editor’s Note: Some information in this story came from the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.