It would be cheaper to transport the Newman students via limousine than it would by bus under a new countywide transportation formula, PJUSD Superintendent Phil Alfano said last week.
So far, the districts have not received support from the Superintendents Council that makes decisions on matters related to the Stanislaus Special Education Local Plan Area — the consortium of school districts that oversees special education services in the county.
They will arbitrate with SELPA on Friday, May 31, as they seek to switch over to Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student busing in an attempt to experience major savings. Under SELPA’s transportation contract, they now must use Modesto-based Storer Transportation for busing of special education students. If arbitration does not work, school districts may consider legal action.
“We’re gonna dig our heels in on this,” Alfano said. “We’re not going to let it go.”
Bus fees go sky-high
Initially, Patterson Joint Unified School District was slated to pay an increase of $401,529 annually — or a total of $873,260 — under a revised formula approved in October.
That cost increase dropped to $294,676 — or a total of $766,407 — under a revised transportation billing formula approved April 26 by the nine-member Superintendents Council. Yet it was more than the district would have paid under two optional formulas up for consideration at that meeting.
Instead of choosing one of two proposed optional billing plans on the agenda, county superintendents approved a third option suggested on the spot by Superintendent Sonny Da Marto of Turlock Joint Unified School District.
Under Da Marto’s plan, 76 percent of transportation fees will be based upon driving expenses. Other options up for consideration on April 26 would have made driving costs only 68 percent of the transportation bill or 61 percent.
The more emphasis the formula places on driving expenses, the higher amount that West Side school districts must pay, as Storer buses must drive west from Modesto to pick up local students and then drive them back east again to Modesto and Turlock schools. By contrast, school district officials note that First Student, which already serves traditional students in the Newman-Crows Landing and Patterson districts, has depots in both Patterson and Newman.
“We’re basically paying for a full round-trip every day with no students on the bus,” said PJUSD trustee Amy Hussar, who spoke at the May 17 SELPA meeting.
For Hussar, the matter is personal. Her third-grade son attends special day classes in Turlock. She told Superintendents Council members that he often has had to sit on the bus for two hours at a time each way to and from school, despite SELPA mandates that bus rides be no longer than 90 minutes.
Storer has rescheduled its routes after she spoke at the SELPA meeting, she said, and she has no complaints about Storer’s service, but she still thinks First Student would be a better financial deal for the district.
Under the most recently approved SELPA transportation billing model, the Patterson district must pay $14,461 per pupil, while Newman-Crows Landing must pay $19,074 per student.
West Side districts have no luck with superintendents
Only two of 10 Superintendents Council members — Newman-Crows Landing Superintendent Ed Felt and Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Chagnon — voted at their May 17 meeting in favor of allowing the Newman district to switch bus companies. The Patterson district only received three votes for its request at the time — from Felt, Chagnon and Wayne Brown of Stanislaus Union School District.
Those decisions came after Felt, Chagnon and Shannon Sanford of the Denair-based Gratton School District cast the only no votes against the revised
transportation model approved at the April 26 meeting because of the costs.
While the Patterson and Newman-Crows Landing school districts both must spend hundreds of thousands more under the new billing formula, Turlock stands to save nearly $500,000 — far more than any other district in the county, according to SELPA documents.
West Side superintendents express policy concerns
While Alfano said he would understand the Superintendents Council being concerned if the Newman and Patterson districts wanted to team up to start a special education program this late in the year, that’s not the case — this is strictly about busing, he said.
He also said that it appeared SELPA was violating its own policies.
An April 24 letter from Sacramento attorney Lisa Kaplan to Stanislaus SELPA director Regina Hedin, on behalf of the Patterson and Newman-Crows Landing districts, stated that SELPA wrongly changed its billing formula without parental input.
Kaplan’s letter also stated that the initial billing model change approved in October occurred just five days before a Nov. 1 deadline for having a billing model in place. As a result, there was not enough time for districts to review the fee structure, Kaplan wrote.
“The failure of the Superintendents Council to fully assess the impact of the new fees on districts resulted in an inequitable impact on both PJUSD and NCLSD,” Kaplan wrote.
‘A matter of perception’
Hedin of SELPA said the previous transportation model was outdated and needed to be changed.
The past model, created in 1991, was similar to a bulls-eye over Stanislaus County, in which zones were created based upon how far they were away from Modesto services, she said. Since that time, the location of schools where the children are being transported has changed, Hedin said.
“The way it used to be done was antiquated,” Hedin said. “It was done in 1991, and didn’t reflect how we currently serve the students and where we serve them.”
SELPA transports 1,500 students from 25 school districts to schools across the county. Hedin described Storer’s service as “exemplary.”
As for the complaints about formulas, Hedin said some districts were happy with the new billing model, noting that the revised model approved in April was less costly for Patterson than the one approved in October.
A summary of the SELPA transportation proposal approved April 26 indicated that the Turlock Unified School District would save $510,642 under the plan.
“It’s all a matter of perception and which numbers you’re looking at,” Hedin said.
She also described complaints from the Patterson and Newman-Crows Landing school districts about alleged policy violations as a matter of perception.
“I would say that all procedures and policies have been followed,” she said.
Hedin said SELPA had never used the arbitration process in the eight years she had worked there.
That process will entail Patterson and Newman-Crows Landing officials first to present their request to Hedin regarding their desire to take control of busing services and then allowing the Superintendents Council to have a vote if an agreement is still not reached.
Rough road ahead
Alfano did not have much optimism about the arbitration process, as West Side school districts already have dealt with Hedin and the Superintendents Council.
“From talking to people on the West Side, it sounds like we get the short end of the stick quite a bit, and this is symptomatic of that,” Alfano said.
Hussar said she hoped that some agreement would be reached that would be more fiscally sound for the district.
“We’re gonna serve our students, there’s no question about that, but we can do better,” she said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org