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Lawmakers eye changing school transportation funding formula

LITTLE ROCK — A new proposed formula for distributing transportation funding to Arkansas school districts would better address the varying needs of different districts, a legislative panel heard Tuesday.

Richard Wilson, assistant director for research services with the state Bureau of Legislative Research, presented the formula to the House and Senate education committees, which discussed it but took no immediate action.

Wilson created the formula at the request of state Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Wilson said the current formula will provide just under $310 per student — based on average daily membership — to every district in the 2012-13 school year, or a total of about $143 million statewide, but that will result in some districts being funded below their need and some above their need.

Districts’ annual transportation costs range from $1,037 to $127 per student, Wilson said. Two-thirds of districts now spend more on transportation than they receive, he said.

Wilson proposed a formula based not only on average daily membership but also on the number of students who actually ride the bus to and from school and the number of miles driven.

“It makes perfect sense that when you combine all three of these, you get the very best model,” he said.

The possible disadvantages of the formula are that some districts would see their funding go down and that the state Supreme Court has given the current formula its blessing, Wilson said.

The long-running Lake View lawsuit over school funding was resolved in 2007 when the state’s highest court ruled that Arkansas was adequately and equitably funding public schools. The Arkansas Constitution requires the state to provide all students with the means to an adequate education.

State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, said many things have changed since the Supreme Court issued that ruling, including the mergers of a number of districts and geographic shifts in population. He also said the court did not order the state not to change any aspect of school funding, but only to support any changes with studies and evidence.

“The caveat was, whatever you change in the future, you’d better be able to back it up. … That’s why I think this committee should not live in fear of being taken back to court. We need to work in the optimism that we use information we get and do the right thing with it in the future,” Key said.

Wilson also said the Legislature may want to consider exempting the three school districts in Pulaski County from the formula while the districts are restricted by a 1989 desegregation settlement that does not allow them to maximize efficiency in bus routes.

If the education committees choose to endorse Wilson’s formula, or some version of it, they will recommend it to the Legislature in the form of a bill during the legislative session that starts in January.

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