Why is the school bus levy needed?

The state funding we receive does not cover the full cost of a school bus equipped for our use. And, similar to the rest of K-12 education, the state has not consistently funded school bus replacement during the last 20 years. Only partial funding is provided to replace school buses, and there is not funding to cover growing transportation needs. School districts around the state have responded by requesting transportation levies and by using general funds to purchase buses. We transport approximately 3,600 students each morning and afternoon.

Can Bellingham Public Schools use its other funding to cover transportation needs?

In the past, Bellingham Public Schools has avoided asking voters for additional funding and has rarely used general funds to purchase buses. The last time the district used general funding for a big purchase of school buses was in 1999 when approximately $1.1 million was used from the general fund to purchase additional buses. Since the general fund pays for staff and our educational program, using this funding to buy buses would decrease staffing, increase class size and reduce educational programming.

How will the school bus levy be used?

The school bus levy is for safety, service and stewardship. It will:

  • Improve student SAFETY with bus technology and newer, safer buses to replace an aging fleet;
  • Provide school bus SERVICE to meet growing transportation needs for students with special needs or who are homeless; support more opportunities for students as defined in The Bellingham Promise, including an improved high school schedule and Promise Buses for field trips and educational programs; and
  • Foster good STEWARDSHIP of public funds and our environment by purchasingenergy efficient buses and encouraging more students to ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

What types of safety features will be included on the school buses?

Many of our school buses currently have cameras, but they are outdated and unreliable. The camera footage is reviewed when concerns about student safety or behavior occur. This school bus levy would replace outdated cameras and provide this improved capability on our new buses. It also would provide GPS location services on our buses so our staff would know the location of our buses to increase student safety and which students are on board to increase student safety.

Why are many of your school buses so old? Have you taken good care of the fleet?

Out of our 69 school buses, 28 have been recommended for replacement, according to the state’s depreciation model. We no longer receive funds to maintain these school buses (please see “Why is the school bus levy needed?”), and many of these replacement parts are expensive. Our oldest bus currently on the road was put into service in 1986. We have been able to stretch the useful life of these buses because of the hard work by our school bus maintenance staff, and have an excellent record for state patrol safety inspections of our buses.

What types of new school buses will be purchased?

Our current bus fleet is made up primarily of diesel buses because they are more efficient and produce less emissions than regular gasoline buses. In their recommendation, the Transportation Levy Planning Advisory Group encouraged the district to pursue electric buses or other future technology as it becomes available. In their research, the group learned that electric buses are currently not part of our state’s school bus transportation contracts, but they are becoming more popular with transit authorities. The group also explored propane buses, but learned that this option would not be as efficient as diesel.

What is the financial impact?

To support these needs, voters will be asked to consider a two-year school bus levy for a total of $4.4 million. The cost of the school bus levy will be approximately 18 cents per $1,000 assessed value in 2017 and 17 cents per $1,000 assessed value in 2018. Combined with our bond and other school levies, the total rate increase for 2017 and 2018 would be approximately 13 cents per $1,000 assessed value from the rate of $4.73 approved by voters in February 2016. This is an estimated $3.36 increase per month for two years for the owner of a home with an assessed value of $300,000.

Will this school bus levy cover transportation needs for the foreseeable future?

This school bus levy should meet our transportation needs for the next several years. The number of students who have specialized transportation needs or who are homeless, as well as future growth in parts of our community, make it challenging to predict how many buses we will need beyond the next several years. This levy would provide 36 replacement and new school buses and bus technologies for student safety.

What are the legal requirements for providing school bus transportation?

In Washington state, school districts must provide transportation for students with some special education needs and students who are homeless. Other than that, school bus transportation is optional. However, our school district is 98 square miles, and many students live too far to walk or bike to school. Regular attendance is critical for students’ success in school. Our families have shared that school bus transportation for students is an important expectation in our community.

What will happen if this school bus levy doesn’t pass?

This levy isn’t about extras, but is paramount to allow us to meet important transportation needs. Currently, we are short at least three buses for specialized transportation and are having to use many other buses that should be retired because they are too old for everyday use. If the school bus levy does not pass, we would need to re-evaluate our routes and decrease school bus services starting in fall 2017. We also need approximately 10 more buses to run our new high school schedule to provide better course opportunities for students; we would still plan to implement this schedule if the levy doesn’t pass because of the educational benefits for students. Instead, our plan would be to decrease or eliminate some bus routes to and from school and other school bus services, such as for fields trips and after-school programs.

What if more students walk and bike to school or use WTA? Would you still need the school bus levy?

Our Transportation Levy Planning Advisory Group spent a considerable amount of time studying this issue. The group included representation from WTA and the City of Bellingham SMART Trips staff. WTA is an important partner with Bellingham Public Schools, and we have been engaging in WTA’s strategic planning process for the future. This year, we received a grant to provide WTA bus passes and “how to the ride” training for every seventh grader. However, our current level of school bus services goes well beyond WTA’s existing routes. And further, even if most of our high school students used WTA instead of the school bus, our largest bus runs each day are to transport elementary school students to and from school. Many elementary school parents have expressed angst about having our youngest students ride city buses, and space on WTA buses is on a first-available basis based upon community ridership. Also, WTA bus stops are farther apart and require more walking from students’ homes than school bus stops. The Transportation Levy Planning Advisory Group also reviewed options for expanding the district’s current walking zone from 1 to 1.5 miles, meaning that transportation services to and from school are generally not provided if safe walk routes exist within this radius. However, it was determined that expanding to 1.5 miles would not decrease our need for more buses nor would it help eliminate current bus routes. It would only result in fewer students riding on those routes.

Will musical instruments be allowed on the new school buses?

For student safety, large musical instruments need to be stored in an area underneath the school bus. We want students to be able to take educational items and equipment, including instruments, on the school bus, but we’re not currently set up for this. Since not all of our older school buses are equipped with this storage area, we don’t currently allow musical instruments on the bus. However, we are exploring this possibility in the future to purchase buses with the storage area as part of this school bus levy.

Did the advisory group consider adding seat belts for buses to the proposed levy?

This was not part of the group’s recommendation, but it has been a topic of discussion recently. We currently have seat belts on special needs buses. Historically, there have been a variety of reasons that seat belts are not used on regular education buses (compartmentalization design of seats, cost, less seats available per bus, etc.), but we are currently reviewing our future needs and the latest information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Why does Bellingham Public Schools transport students as far away as Blaine and Skagit County?

The Bellingham Promise pushes us to do everything we can for kids, even it’s hard. We provide transportation to the Northwest Career and Technical Academy to provide future living-wage job opportunities for kids in Mount Vernon. We also pick up teen parents and their babies throughout our county for our GRADs program. And, we transport students who are homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which allows students the continuity of attending their “home” school throughout these traumatic circumstances.

If the school bus levy passes and we have more buses for field trip opportunities, will PTAs/PTOs need to cover more field trip expenses?

As part of Project Free Education, we are covering more learning experiences for our students beyond the classroom. By working together with principals and PTAs/PTOs, we can determine what is most important and prioritize funds accordingly. It is our intent to decrease the financial burden on our students and families who are attending our schools and participating in activities, athletics and field trips so that all students have access to these opportunities.

Does this school bus levy cover the cost of drivers?

No, we use general funds and our operations levy to fund staff. The state funds school bus drivers and transportation staff based on how efficient a school district’s bus operations are run. Because of the work of our transportation staff, the state has given us the highest efficiency rating possible, resulting in 98 percent of our transportation operations and staffing costs being funded by the state.