- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Members of one northern Texas community will have to pay for more than just notebooks and pencils this year, as cash-strapped school officials say they are not backing down from a plan to charge students up to $185 a semester for the privilege of riding the bus to school.

“In Texas, if you want to get money, it’s coming from two sources - the state and your local community,” said James R. Veitenheimer, the superintendent of Keller Independent School District, a well-heeled Fort Worth suburb. “We’re known for being a very frugal and efficient district. In an election, our community voted down a tax increase. So we were faced with having to cut a bunch of things we didn’t want to cut, including public transportation.”

For the average student, one semester of bus rides will cost $185. Students on a free and reduced lunch plan will be charged $100. School officials state the change will save the district $2 million.

Keller school officials argue they were left with little choice after their budget was cut about $30 million over the next two school years. A proposed increase in property taxes was shot down at the polls.

Local voters were “well aware” of what a no vote could mean for local education budgets.

But the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), the local education union, contend the people of Keller should never have had to make that choice in the first place.

“That’s what happens when you cut the budget. It’s a shame, but the fault rests with Gov. Rick Perry and the legislative majority, which cut billions from the education budget,” TSTA spokesperson Clay Robison said. “The tea party tends to think we spend too much money on government? Well, maybe the tea party can organize a car pool.”

Mr. Veitenheimer said some parents have voiced complaints at recent school board meetings, but the majority of students in the district do not ride the buses.

“There are people who have used it for free and would like to continue using it for free, but there are also people who feel strongly that our families who use the service should pay for it,” Mr. Veitenheimer said.

Keller is not the only one making somewhat creative decisions in the face of empty pockets. Ingleside in Texas and Honolulu also recently decided to either add or raise school bus fares, and Memphis, Tenn., schools announced Tuesday they would postpone the first day of school until city council hands them about $55 million.

“If we start school without the money we’re owed, we will have real problems come September. If we start school and then stop it abruptly, that’s not good for the kids,” said Kriner Cash, superintendent of Memphis schools.

Mr. Veitenheimer said Texas’ funding formula for public education was “fundamentally flawed,” but the district would have to make do for the time being.

“What the state of Texas and our local community told us to do is live within our means, and we’re trying to do that,” Mr. Veitenheimer said. “You can’t spend millions of dollars you don’t have.”

But some parents say the fees will bring real hardship.

Valerie Caldwell is unemployed and her son was recently transferred to a middle school that is five miles from their home.

“Right now he might have to walk,” she said in an interview with the local Fox News affiliate.

“We’re going to have to figure something out that doesn’t include $300 of school transportation fees,” she added.

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