The District 97 Oak Park elementary school board did two smart things at its last meeting. It agreed to extend its current formula for busing elementary and middle school students for another year and it decided to more rigorously evaluate its options for cutting back on the cost of busing in the future.
The board and administration acknowledged it had missed any possible window for notable changes to the costly busing program for the fall and so opted for the one-year extension. It also recognized that it had opened something of a hornet’s nest in even raising the possibility of cutbacks or elimination of the program. That’s why the board wisely chose to involve the community more in a study process over the next months.
In a village rightly howling about its tax bills and the primary role of the elementary and high school in fueling those taxes, it is past time that D97 turned an eye to the busing program. These underutilized buses cost a lot of money, more than $500,000 annually, and we see no sign that those costs have been thoroughly considered in the 40-plus years since busing was added, as school boundaries were redrawn with the creation of two middle schools.
As the new committee on busing begins its efforts, it will need to sort out the necessity for busing kids, particularly elementary students who are often quite close to their school. There are odd exceptions, based on boundaries and potential traffic hazards but, according to the work of a consultant hired by the district, no elementary student qualifies for bus service based on exceeding a 1.5-mile trip to school. There are middle school students who would have a longer walk than that and busing might be necessary. We’d be open to shifting middle school start times to allow double use of buses. We’re not open to redrawing boundaries to reduce busing costs as those boundaries are critical to maintaining racial balance in those schools.
With so many families working so many hours and earning double incomes, we think the committee will also find many parents of school kids who rely on the school bus to make complicated schedules come close to working. That’s real and will need to be considered.
We applaud D97 for both pausing and for moving ahead in looking at school busing.