School bus fees approved in Douglas County: Nobody rides for free

Last night, the school board for the cash-strapped Douglas County School District approved a plan that will charge kids for riding the school bus.

The price is fifty cents each way, to take effect at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year -- and while the fees are unusual at this point, they probably won't be for long. DCSD director of communications Susan Meek notes that there's hardly been an uproar over these new charges.

"We started talking about this in the January time frame," Meek says. "It started with a survey that went out that month. And at that point, we started engaging every school through their school advisory council and our district advisory committee, which works with those counsels. We've also been taking questions on our website."

This last tack netted approximately fifty e-mails over the course of four months, with some negative, some positive, and some "from people just seeking information about how it would work," Meek notes. "The response hasn't been overwhelming."

According to Meek, approximately 56,000 students attend DougCo schools, with around 17,000 of them riding the bus at least some of the time. The latter group "will have an RFID card -- a radio frequency identification card," she explains. "Currently, our secondary students who ride the bus have to have their ID anyway, so it's just another card. The bus will have a reader on it that tracks the usage when a student is riding the bus, and quarterly bills will be sent out after the fact."

What if parents don't pay the bill? Will students be prevented from riding? No, Meek says: "We would never leave a child waiting on the road. We'll always transport kids, but we'll remind parents that they're responsible for paying they're fees, just like they're responsible for paying other fees."

These particulars will be spelled out in letters being sent to families over the next week. These missives will include "information and registration for families that are eligible for transportation," she allows.

The cost of implementing the program is estimated at $220,000 over a three-year period, with the charges expected to generate $2 million per annum -- which will hardly solve DougCo's budget crisis.

Meek says the district must cut $43 million for the next school year. Of that total, about $19 million of it can be traced to transportation costs. That amount goes down to $15 million after some expenses are reimbursed by the state. But it's still far more than the ride fees will cover.

What's next? With Spirit Airlines beginning to charge for carry-on bags, it might not be long before Junior gets smacked with a backpack fee...

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