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Where have all the school buses gone in Citrus Heights?

File photo, school bus. // M. Hazlip

By Sara Beth Williams–
With Thursday marking the first day of classes back in session at public schools in Citrus Heights, students can once again be seen walking to school or being dropped off by parents — but most students have not had the option of taking a school bus in the city for more than a decade.

The San Juan Unified School District, which serves Citrus Heights and surrounding areas, says on its website that its Board of Education voted in 2011 to discontinue the use of bus transportation for general education students. A small number of yellow school buses can still be seen in the district, offering federally mandated transportation for select students in special education and other programs.

According to school board member Tanya Kravchuk, one of the reasons the San Juan district eliminated home-to-school transportation for non-federally protected student groups was due to high salary rates required for district school bus drivers.

San Juan is not the only district in California to eliminate home-to-school transportation. According to the Los Angeles Times and local Sacramento news reports, districts throughout California have either cut or abandoned the use of school buses for home-to-school transportation citing budget cuts, pandemic woes, and the high cost, which some districts say exceeds $300,000 annually.

New full-size buses can cost from $90,0000 to $290,000 depending on the type of fuel, with electric buses costing the most. Other costs to consider include salaries for bus drivers and aides, fuel costs, and regular maintenance and upgrades.

The California School Board Association said in a May 2022 local news report that the state on average pays less than 30 percent of the cost of busing kids to school, and has not increased transportation funding to districts in over 40 years.

Some districts, like Rocklin Unified, have offset the required cost by asking families to pay a monthly or annual bus pass fee for their students’ district transportation. Still other districts, like Sonoma County Union High School District, which already charged families an annual fee, made cuts to some rural bus routes during the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Advocates for the return of district transportation, like Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), proposed a bill to the state of California in February last year that would bring back buses by 2027, citing the advantages of increased safety for students, a reduction in traffic congestion, and environmental benefits.

According to the National School Transportation Association, school buses keep 17 million cars off the roads per year and can carry passengers that equal the equivalent of 36 cars. School buses also provide a stable source of transportation for students who otherwise might have difficulty getting to school.

O’Donnell’s Assembly Bill 2933 would potentially provide full funding for transportation in school districts across the state. However, in June 2022, the bill was delayed by the committee and no further action was taken on the bill in a committee hearing in November last year.

Sacramento County representatives have sought other transportation option solutions for students, such as giving students free access to regional transit.

Jay Schenirer, a former Sacramento City councilmember, school board member, and Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) board member, was influential in advocating for free transit for all students in Sacramento County, including all local San Juan Unified students. Schenirer’s goal was to “combat chronic absenteeism,” according to SacRT Director of Marketing, Communication and Public information, Jessica Gonzalez. In October of 2019, SacRT began offering free rides to all students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We saw a 127% increase in student ridership in the first year of the program,” Gonzalez said, adding that many students ride together in groups, and that specific bus routes were created to drop kids off right before school and pick them up directly after school. “Seeing the results of that program was pretty unbelievable.”

Parents of students are not able to ride free and must pay the regular fare. Some parents, like Citrus Heights Vice Mayor Bret Daniels, are uncomfortable with the idea.

“I really don’t want my kid on a public bus day after day in a routine that someone could take advantage of knowing they will be there, where they will get on and off the base, and when they will be there,” Daniels said.

According to the SacRT website, as of the 2023 fiscal year, student ridership has doubled since 2019. SacRT estimates that the service area serves up to 265,000 youth. The RydeFreeRT program is available for any TK-12th grade students who live or go to school within SacRT’s service area, which includes the cities of Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova and parts of Sacramento County.

Students can pick up RydeFreeRT cards at local schools, the downtown SacRT customer service center on R Street, or at a any Sacramento Public Library location.

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