LYNNWOOD — Many bus drivers are starting the new school year collecting unemployment as the state’s formula for funding their jobs collides with the realities of remote learning.
With state dollars tied to ridership, and no riders in a pandemic-induced world of virtual schooling, school districts are uncertain how much money they can count on receiving this academic year.
Each is starting out with a sum based on past tallies. School board directors and superintendents worry that because campuses are closed and have no students to transport, they will receive smaller allotments of state dollars in future months when, they hope, schools will be returning to a semblance of pre-outbreak normalcy.
As a result, most districts in Snohomish County furloughed drivers to cut costs and stretch the money they got. Drivers are able to keep their health benefits, collect unemployment and be available if campuses reopen.
“If there is uncertainty about the total amount of money you’ll receive, it makes sense to try to make the money you receive last longer,” said T.J. Kelly, chief financial officer for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Edmonds School District is an outlier. The new superintendent, Gustavo Balderas, and the school board gave pink slips in August to 175 drivers and transportation employees.
In a statement, the district said it was “compelled” to lay them off.
“Funding for transportation is based on student ridership. When ridership falls, funding falls,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, even when we can transport many of our students again, adequate funding to pay drivers this school year is not being provided by the state.”
Shortly after the school board’s action in mid-August, small groups of drivers carried out a series of informational pickets near schools in the district.
“We don’t know what our future holds,” said Christina Walker, a single mother of two and a district bus driver for 12 years. “We lost all of our health benefits in the middle of the pandemic.”
Three drivers have been recalled this month. Two will be transporting students to specific, out-of-district special education programs and the third will transport students enrolled in technical programs, according to the district.
“Unless the state changes the level of transportation funding for this school year, Edmonds School District faces a severe transportation funding deficit,” the statement continued. “The district remains unable to recall school bus drivers unless there is work for them to do transporting students.”
Student transportation in Washington’s public schools is funded by the state based on ridership counts taken three times a year, typically in October, January and March or April. The current state budget contains $621 million for distribution to 297 school districts.
Districts draw up budgets assuming they will get a certain allotment. The state may make adjustments, up or down, in February based on ridership counts taken in the fall and winter. With far fewer riders now, district leaders worry there will be less money, maybe a lot less, for the final months of the school year.
State lawmakers will be making that decision — though probably not until the next legislative session begins in January.
There are choices. They could give districts their full allotments, even if it’s unwarranted, based on a strict adherence to the funding formula. Or lawmakers could look to redirect a portion of the $621 million to plug other holes in the state budget.
“Legislators see this as an area of potential savings. That’s what has districts concerned,” Kelly said. “We are going to pursue a supplemental budget request to the Legislature and say this is a problem and and we need legislators to provide help to try and avoid a funding cliff in February.”
District leaders want assurances now, but Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say such a commitment cannot be made with the state facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall as a result of the COVID-induced recession.
“I know it’s tough for the districts. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “There’s no guarantees on anything.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who is the lead budget writer in the Senate, said student transportation is part of basic education, which the Supreme Court has made clear is the financial responsibility of the state.
“We will be obligated to fund that and we will figure that out,” she said.
At the same time, when budget deliberations get under way in January, the notion of paying districts for services they don’t provide may not stack up well against other demands for funding, she said. Data on ridership this fall and winter will influence the outcome.
“We’re not going to penalize them,” she said. “We’re not going to give them what they would get in a normal year because they are not using it.”
In late August, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation listing various tasks buses and bus drivers could be assigned — with state transportation dollars covering the costs, as if they were transporting students. It was similar to guidance provided following his closure of schools in March.
The idea is that if buses and drivers are used in a way logically linked to educating students — such as delivery of learning materials, homework or meals, or serving as a Wi-Fi hotspot to assist students with remote learning, it would be covered with state money.
The governor issued the order following conversations with legislative leaders.
“We believe there is a good understanding that these things are very much needed to provide basic education in a remote learning environment,” said Maddy Thompson, Inslee’s top education policy advisor.
The proclamation also requires districts to account for the use of the dollars and assumes lawmakers will want that information before they decide how much districts will receive this school year, she said.
“What school districts should know by now is if they are using drivers for allowable functions, they log those labor hours the same way they would ridership, and that will be the same as if they had used the drivers to transport students to and from school,” said Jason Powell, vice president and business agent for Teamsters Local 763, which represents bus drivers in the Edmonds district and others throughout the state.
But the proclamation hasn’t changed the situation in the Edmonds district, which includes Lynnwood.
Thompson said she has spoken twice with Superintendent Balderas to ensure he and district leaders understood the options in the governor’s proclamation. She said she also talked to Balderas about alternatives to laying off drivers which could defray future costs of rehiring when schools scale up.
“They are naturally cautious,” she said. “They don’t want to be left in the lurch.”
Powell said he thinks the problem in Edmonds is leadership “made the decision on what programs they would do before the governor’s actions and decided, ‘We’re not changing course.’ It boggles my mind. The damage they have to do the morale of drivers and the damage they have done to labor relations, you can’t put a price on it.”
In its statement, the district acknowledged the proclamation provides flexibility in use of transportation dollars.
”However, no additional transportation funding has been provided to cover such costs. As transportation funding is already projected to fall far short this school year, the change does not support the recall of any school bus drivers,” the district statement said.
“No one involved in this decision is naive to its impact on our drivers,” the statement concludes. “We are anxious to recall them and get them back to work supporting student learning. The district will continue to evaluate the situation and welcomes new funding and supportive guidance from the state.”