During one of Loudoun County’s most difficult budget seasons in 2014, the School Board considered halting the bus service provided to students who attend the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax.
Hundreds of parents and students packed the board room to urge the board not to pull the buses, but to instead let them pay the cost of the service. But state law does not allow public schools to charge its students for transportation.
The School Board is considering asking state lawmakers to change that rule.
The board is scheduled to adopt its 2016 Legislative Program on Nov. 15, and one of the new requests for Loudoun’s delegation in Richmond is to champion legislation that would allow Virginia’s public schools to charge for bus service “to and from optional educational activities.”
That would include programs outside of a students’ home school, such as Thomas Jefferson or Loudoun’s Academy of Science.
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), who supposed the proposal in committee, told his colleagues at a Oct. 25 meeting that the intension would be to provide school leaders the flexibility to charge families for bus service, instead of just eliminating it all together.
“This gives us that optional flexibility. … Otherwise, will be in the same situation as we were two years ago and not have any tools with which to work—it’s either all or nothing,” he said.
He noted that Virginia schools are not required to provide bus service at all. However, if a student lives more than 1.5 miles from his or her home school and is not provided transportation, they are released from compulsory attendance laws.
School Board member Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said she opposed the idea, because it could mean that students who cannot afford the bus fare are prohibited from attending Thomas Jefferson or other magnet programs.
Hornberger and Tom Marshall (Leesburg) responded that the school system makes sure students are not excluded from programs because of finances. For example, it waives athletic fees for students from low-income households.
“I’m concerned about future boards,” Sheridan added.
Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) and Joy Maloney (Broad Run) also opposed the idea. DeKenipp said, as is, parents feel “nickel and dimed” as they’re required to pay fees for their students to park on campus, play sports or take Advanced Placement exams.
“Did you know the average high school brings in almost $1 million a year in fees?” he said. “The fees are getting out of hand.”
Maloney said those costs should not be charged to students’ parents but instead be shared by the entire tax base.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) countered that people who do not have children in schools don’t want to be nickel and dimed either. She said she appreciates her colleagues’ perspective, but added, “I am not a fan of having the government micromanage every little thing you do. … This is not a mandate to charge, but it gives us the freedom to do so.”
The proposed Legislative Program also asks for schools’ accreditation process to be more fair. It requests that only students who have completed at least 20 instructional hours at a school be included in its overall on-time graduation rate. Right now, a student who enrolls late in the academic year and does not graduate on time can negatively affect that school’s on-time graduation rate and, ultimately, its accreditation rating.
Sheridan gave the example of Park View High School in Sterling. Last school year, the school lost 146 students and gained 225 students. “We think a legislator will pick this up because it will help schools across the commonwealth,” she said.
The School Board is scheduled to present the adopted Legislative Program to lawmakers at the annual Legislative Breakfast on Friday, Dec. 2.