Parents to Pay for School Bus Rides: Up to $375 a Year

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Saddleback Valley Unified School District families whose children ride the bus to school will now have to pay up to $375 a year for that service under a plan adopted by the Board of Education.

Beginning in September, families will pay $150 for their first child to ride the bus, $150 for the second and $75 for a third. Additional children will ride free. Children from low-income families and special education students will be exempt.

At least one other Orange County school district, Los Alamitos Unified, will also charge for busing in the fall. That district's plan has four different fee schedules, based on family income and frequency of use. The most expensive rate will cost parents $140 for their first child, $90 for their second and $50 for their third. Additional children will ride free.

The Saddleback Valley plan, approved unanimously by the Board of Education this week, will raise $600,000 a year for the financially strapped district, and board members said they had no choice but to impose the fee.

The district recently cut more than $2 million from its 1991-92 school budget and eliminated more than 20 programs because of reduced state funding.

However, some parents say the fee is unfair. They point out that because of overcrowding at some district elementary schools, their children are not allowed to attend schools within walking distance of their homes but are bused to less crowded schools miles away.

Board member Marcia L. Birch criticized the way the state funds the district's busing program. The district spends about $2.5 million annually to bus 4,500 students but receives only $1.2 million for busing from the state. The district has paid the remaining $1.3 million with money that normally would be used for classroom or administrative expenses. Even with the new fees, the district will still spend $700,000 a year for busing.

"I think the state of California should pay for busing," she said. "Busing is as basic as a school's utilities and should be dealt with as such."

Kathy Lousignont, a Mission Viejo parent, said her children are assigned to Montevideo Elementary School 4 miles from her home even though there are schools within walking distance. "We did not ask to be put on the bus," she said.

According to state law, school districts only have to provide busing for special education students--those with mental or physical handicaps. All other busing is optional, no matter how far a child lives from school.

The district once charged for busing, but stopped in 1989 after a state court ruled that public schools cannot charge for services that they are providing. Saddleback Valley previously charged parents $135 for each child that rode the bus to school.

But a state Court of Appeal recently ruled in a case involving the Arcadia Unified School District that districts can charge for busing.

Saddleback Valley officials say that they will keep any money collected in an escrow account in case a higher court rules that charging for busing is illegal and the district is forced to make refunds.

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