Budget deficits and shrinking enrollment have Seattle officials wondering whether they can afford an enrollment plan that provides student transportation

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It costs Seattle Public Schools almost $3,300 a day to bus students from around the city to two neighboring schools, Summit K-12 and Alternative School #1 at Pinehurst — nearly three times more than the districtwide average.

Every day, each of the buses logs an average 4 hours, 20 minutes for round-trip service. The total miles driven daily to get students to the two Northeast Seattle schools and home again is equivalent to driving from Seattle to Everett and back.

Seattle’s pupil-transportation plan, coupled with its open-enrollment student assignment plan, gives a family the chance to choose a school other than its neighborhood school. But in the face of budget deficits and dwindling enrollment, district officials are wondering whether they will have to close schools and limit transportation options.

For the past decade the district has drawn national recognition for its progressive school-choice plan and paid for its elaborate bus service — this year the bill is $26.3 million — with state and local funds.

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But since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, districts nationwide have been caught between declining state budgets and new demands for academic accountability. Giving a free ride to school is a luxury that Tacoma no longer will provide, and one that Seattle may sacrifice, too.

While Seattle’s school-transportation plan initially grew out of its attempt to desegregate schools in the 1970s and 1980s, it now is driven by parental choice rather than racial diversity.

Families can choose elementary schools that aren’t the closest to their homes, but within geographic clusters, and the district provides busing from every part of the city to every high school and to selected alternative schools.

Last year, about 20,647 of the Seattle Public Schools’ 47,000 students rode the buses. Of those, nearly 40 percent — 3,342 elementary students and 4,665 secondary students — received transportation because of the district’s school-choice plan.

The cost of providing a choice: $7.6 million. Seattle annually spends about $1,200 for every student it transports, compared with about $900 in Tacoma and $364 in Kent.

The district is legally required to offer busing only for special-education students who need it, which costs about $6.3 million a year, and to students in low-performing schools who seek transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act. (Few have sought such transfers.)

The state’s formula for paying transportation costs, which underwrites about half of Seattle’s busing expenses, hasn’t changed in two decades, says Allan Jones, director of pupil transportation in the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “The formula is supposed to work for all school districts,” he said. “The basic impression that I’ve got is for some school districts it works, for others it doesn’t. … It’s too complicated a system to be able to tweak it here and there and have it fixed.”

In her 2005-07 budget proposal, State Superintendent Terry Bergeson again stated that student transportation is “significantly underfunded” for most districts. She is asking lawmakers for $616,350 for a comprehensive study of the transportation formula and an increase of $163 million to shore up districts’ transportation budgets until the formula is revised.

Dave Anderson, transportation manager for Seattle schools, said any formula changes should account for an unfunded mandate in the No Child Left Behind Act. Previously, homeless children attended schools with designated shelters and, if they moved, were to be bused only to other designated schools within the district.

The federal law now requires districts to continue, for up to two years, to bus homeless children who have moved away from their original schools — even if the children are placed in housing outside the school district. For example, Seattle pays to pick up and return one or two homeless children in Auburn who began the year at a Seattle school.

Complicating matters, districts’ state allocations for the year are locked in, based on a student headcount in October. As the school year progresses, Anderson says, the district’s homeless population tends to grow, which means greater costs to bus additional homeless children, without funding for them. The district must find buses to transport 10 to 15 homeless children a week, on average, he said.

“There’s got to be a way to recognize this mandate with added funding,” Anderson said.

School Board member Dick Lilly says the district should return to a neighborhood school-assignment plan, routing students from elementary to middle to high schools based on geography. That would offer families predictability, and the savings in transportation costs could be used to raise the quality of low-performing schools, he said.

Lilly would like to see the district try a neighborhood assignment plan before it closes any schools. He also would set aside 40 percent of seats in all of the city’s alternative, middle and high schools for low-income students.

“It will bring parents, and therefore students, back into the district,” he said. “It will change our enrollment patterns from declining to increasing. Many will be middle class and have a lot of energy.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com