Big yellow bus fare
The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round. On school buses, each rotation historically comes free of charge. For some Prince George’s County students, those free rides may soon be over.
In an effort to cut costs, the county school board has proposed eliminating subsidies for transportation to and from specialty programs. Ordinarily, a school will only draw students from within a certain distance or radius from the school, or from within a defined geographic area. Specialty programs draw students from all over the county.
This means the average distance between home and school for students in specialty programs is greater than that of students in non-specialty placements.
A longer trip makes the cost of transporting a student in a specialty program significantly higher, on average, than the cost of transporting students not in such programs.
Statistically, the county spends an average of $1,900 a month on transportation costs for students in specialty programs. This is almost a fivefold increase from the $400 a month cost associated with non-specialty students.
By eliminating the subsidy for specialty program transportation, the board would shave $8 million from a projected budgetary gap of $155 million.
This plan has hit a bump in the road, in the form of an opinion issued by the office of the Maryland Attorney General. That opinion says the county lacks jurisdiction to make such a move.
It is also the Attorney General’s opinion that if the Maryland General Assembly passed a similar measure, there is a good chance that measure would be found unconstitutional.
As the basis for this opinion, the Attorney General cites to a decision of the Court of Appeals of Maryland that describes the busing of children to and from school as an “integral part of education.”
That decision was handed down in the 1977 case of McCarthy v. Board of Education of Anne Arundel County. In that case, the Court determined that the Anne Arundel County Council lacked power or authority to modify state law concerning the transportation of students.
On the basis of this long-standing precedent, the state and county governments cannot divest themselves of financial responsibility, according to the State’s Attorney.
The Attorney General’s opinion appears to be spot-on. Applying the precedent, the P.G. school board’s proposed budget would likewise modify state law, which says that every single public school student is entitled to subsidized transportation to and from school.
This opinion is not only supported by the law. It’s also supported by common sense. Students are entitled to a free, public education. That education isn’t free if they are required to pay to get there.
Sure, specialty schools aren’t the standard placement for any student. But they are often the best placement. By effectively forcing students to pay for their rides, the school board would diminish or destroy some students’ ability to attend such programs. The cost, both in the short and in the long term, would far exceed the sum of $8 million a year.
So, nice try, P.G. school board. We can empathize with your need to trim the budget, but the law is the law. Them’s the brakes. Pun intended.
Bryan Utter is an attorney at HooverLaw, LLC. Walker Rowe contributed to this article.