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A Rarity Among California School Districts, Vista Unified Funds New Bus Routes

 Roosevelt Middle School students board a North County Transit bus on North S...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Roosevelt Middle School students board a North County Transit bus on North Santa Fe Avenue in Oceanside, June 6, 2017.

The Vista Unified School Board has approved $1.2 million to add seven new bus routes for next year. The plan follows a study that found hundreds of its students travel farther than 1.5 miles to get to school — some walking along roads without sidewalks and others paying for public transit.

KPBS recently reported some of the long commutes were caused when the district turned a neighborhood school into a magnet school. Magnets use a lottery system instead of enrollment boundaries, so neighborhood children who don’t get in via the lottery have to go to a school farther from home.

RELATED: In Vista Unified, More School Choice Means More Traffic

“Especially for the kids that have been displaced because of the magnet, getting to school should really be the last thing that these kids have to worry about,” said Michelle Alves, a parent in the district.

She began pressing administrators on the issue last year when she noticed some of the students waiting for a North County Transit District bus near her home.

“Thirty in a group standing on the side of a busy street I think is a safety concern for these kids,” Alves said. “And then, also, there’s many of them that have to pay for their bus passes. I think it’s $36 a month and that’s a lot for some of these families to absorb.”

RELATED: Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista

The new bus plan is a rarity in California, where busing isn’t required for most students and bus budgets have dwindled. Many districts cut into their busing programs during the Great Recession, and by 2014 nearly 90 percent of California children were getting to school in other ways, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Vista Unified’s new routes will serve 400 elementary school students and cost about $75,000 a year each. That doesn’t include the $815,518 the district will spend to purchase the buses. It will spend an additional $203,000 to expand a shuttle program that, when used in conjunction with the elementary bus routes, will serve about 500 middle school students.

Vista Unified is currently facing a budget gap of $9.2 million. The district plans to use state grants for disadvantaged students to cover the busing costs, citing evidence that the majority of students who would benefit fall within the grants’ target populations. It’s also receiving a discount on buses through an Environmental Protection Agency program; busing is more environmentally friendly than having parents drive their children to school.

Despite the costs, many parents attended Thursday’s meeting and sent emails to express support for the plan.

Changes to enrollment boundaries that have allowed the Vista Unified School District to grow its magnet program have also stretched student commutes.

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