School buses are likely to keep rolling for now, as the Legislature on Thursday restored $248 million for home-to-school transportation that was particularly crucial for small and rural school districts that need to take students across long distances.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who eliminated the school busing money as of January after state revenues fell short of projections, has indicated that he supports the move.
Educators throughout California had mobilized against the midyear elimination of all busing money, arguing that it would hit hardest remote districts such as Death Valley, which spends about $3,400 per student, compared to $26 or less for many suburban districts.
The bill, SB 81, would affect all districts — large or small — equally. To restore the $248 million, legislators agreed to cut districts' per-pupil funding by $42 per student. The bill breezed through both the state Senate and Assembly on bipartisan votes and was sent to the governor's desk.
"We're very happy because at least the cut is being done in a more equitable manner," said Edgar Zazueta, Los Angeles Unified's director of governmental relations.
When the proposal to reduce the funding was announced in December, L.A. Unified filed a lawsuit seeking to recover the $38 million it stood to lose. The money covers the cost of legally required transportation for more than 48,000 students who are disabled or attend magnet programs under a court desegregation order. The hit amounted to $68 per student.
In Death Valley, where school buses are a lifeline for isolated students who commute more than two hours each school day, the bill's passage brought excitement and relief.
"Oh my God! This is such a relief, I could cry," said Debra Watterson, a Death Valley Unified School District board member whose daughter, Marlee RedWolf Rave, has no other transportation from her Timbisha Shoshone tribal village than the school bus.
But Zazueta and others said the relief may be short-lived. Brown has eliminated the entire school transportation program in his 2012-13 budget unveiled in January. Zazueta said L.A. Unified would decide whether to move forward with its litigation after the bill is signed into law.