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School bus rides likely to get longer in Los Angeles

June 4, 2009 |  7:55 pm

Local school bus rides would last as long as 90 minutes each way next year as a result of the latest proposed state budget cuts, The Times has learned.

This new hardship for students and families results from $62 million in looming cuts to transportation services in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The service reduction would be necessary if state leaders go along with a proposal that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger included in his latest revised budget.

Statewide, the governor’s spending plan slashes more than $400 million from school transportation, about 65% of total school transportation funds. Urban and rural school districts — which serve large populations of the poor -- would be disproportionately affected because theyrely more on home-to-school transportation. Rural districts often cover vast, thinly populated distances. And they take responsibility for transporting the children of farm workers to school while their parents — who often lack cars — labor in the fields.

In L.A. Unified, middle class families also are served by transportation through their participation in the popular magnet-school program. The nation's second-largest school district also provides transportation to disabled students and, in some cases, offers busing so students can avoid safety hazards such as train lines or busy highways.

About 59,000 of 688,000 students take the bus, but thousands fewer could qualify next year because “walking” distance to school would be defined as three miles instead of two.

And the maximum bus trip would grow to 90 minutes from the current 75 minutes. In truth, some bus rides already take longer because of traffic.

District officials “should fill the school buses with parents and drive them straight to the state capital,” said former school board member David Tokofsky, whose daughter attends a magnet program.

“I don’t know if the governor is aware of the problems he is creating because his world is going from a Brentwood house to a Brentwood private school," he added. "That is not the reality of most children in California. For them, the opportunities of school choice will be dramatically reduced to mainly those families that can develop carpools amid the traffic of Los Angeles.”

The governor’s office has acknowledged that its proposed cuts would cause hardship, but asserted that all government services are being slashed to deal with a $24-billion deficit. Los Angeles is Democratic territory and some affected rural districts are represented by Republicans, so some insiders and lobbyists are trying to craft a bipartisan deal to soften the blow. There’s also speculation that transportation funding could become a bargaining chip to bring Republicans to the table on a broader budget deal. But a partial restoration would require making up the difference somewhere else.

As matters stand, about 100 local routes would be canceled, with many drivers laid off, which angered labor leaders who already were bracing for thousands of lost jobs. The union representing bus drivers noted Thursday that its members had voted to forgo a 6% wage increase in their last contract to allow more part-time drivers to convert to full-time work.

Even before this latest proposal, the district was planning to cut back on the non-driving staff that helps parents with transportation issues, such as late buses.

In addition, 2,254 teachers also would be laid off June 30. And the district already has canceled much of its summer school programs. Even so, L.A. Unified still needs to close a new budget gap that opened as a result of the state’s worsening budget situation.

A district spokeswoman said that options are limited.

“We are simply responding to what has been required of us in terms of cuts by the state,” said Lydia Ramos. “The world we knew of kids getting on the bus, that’s the way of the past at this point. This is another example of the state creating problems for parent and their kids. Parents should be outraged.”

-- Howard Blume

Blume is Twittering about budget woes and other doings affecting the Los Angeles Unified School District. Follow his updates at http://twitter.com/howardblume.