Georgia Crossover Day 2024 Bill Summary

As the General Assembly prepares to put its stamp on Gov. Brian Kemp's proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, school transportation officials and education advocates are praising, some somewhat cautiously, the governor's large and long-awaited increase in student transportation funding.

Following a series of State Affairs articles outlining the plight of children who rely on poor transportation options, Kemp in late January proposed doubling the state's share of the student transportation budget in 2025, with additional $210 million for bus operations and $20 million for 227 new buses.

“It’s huge, extremely huge,” said Pat Schofill, deputy superintendent of operations for Jackson County Schools and director of student transportation for the state Department of Education from 2016 to 2022.

“What these funds will do for a growing system like Jackson County is significant,” he said. “While we now get $1 million for student transportation, the state will provide perhaps $2 million of our $11 million budget. This will allow us to invest in salaries for bus drivers and technicians, training initiatives and improvements to buses such as GPS technology, seat belts and other safety features.”

Better yet, Schofill said the additional state funding “will allow us and many other districts to dedicate some of our local funds to initiatives we have wanted to work on,” such as building new schools and hiring more teachers and mental health counselors.

Georgia Crossover Day 2024 Bill SummaryJason Ayers, transportation director for Barrow County Schools in Barrow County. (Image credit: Jason Ayers)

“When we heard the numbers they were throwing around, we were excited,” said Jason Ayers, transportation director for Barrow County Schools. “But we know we have to wait and see what the actual allocation looks like.”

Still, Ayers and his team are already considering hiring more staff and increasing wages for bus drivers and bus mechanics, both of which start at about $16 an hour, in hopes that more competitive salaries will help fill some long-standing vacancies positions to be filled.

“The reason no one applies for transportation departments is because they can go somewhere else and make more money,” he said. “Anything that helps us compete with trucking companies and larger school districts is a big deal.”

Ayers said about 60 buses in his 200-strong fleet are 15 years old or older, the age at which most buses are considered past their useful life. Since new buses cost about $120,000 each, “make sure the bus lasts as long as possible.” But then there comes a point where it's so old it's not even practical to use it anymore repair. We still have a lot to gain by modernizing our fleet. This new funding will enable us to invest heavily in infrastructure and operations.”

Richmond County school bus driver Yolanda Brown told State Affairs last year that buses suffer from mechanical problems and break down regularly, causing students to be late for school. Some miss both breakfast and first class.

Brown said the problems still exist and the district still has 40 vacancies among its 176 driver positions, and many drivers are having to make double trips on crowded buses. “There is a lot of frustration” among drivers, students and parents, she said.

But Brown, the president of the AFL-CIO's Transport Workers Union Local 239 in Augusta, said she is cautiously optimistic about the influx of new funding the governor has proposed.

“It’s a good thing he’s doing,” she said. “I'm a little concerned about how the funding will reach the local level, but I think it will trickle down.” She said the district's chief financial officer and superintendent are “finally looking at revamping employee salaries.” , which start at $14.06 per hour for bus drivers. “Hopefully this will slow down the constant turnover we have.”

Paul Abbott, executive director of transportation for Richmond County Schools, is more positive about the future.

“It will be a blessing for us,” he said. “We don’t know the dollar amount yet and don’t know exactly what we can do with it, but we plan to increase the starting salary quite a bit, which is what we needed to bring people on.”

Why it matters

Until the mid-1990s, the state, which is required by law to cover the cost of transporting children to public schools, covered about half of school districts' total costs of transporting students. But over the years, Georgia's investments have steadily declined – accounting for about 17% of the total cost of $1.1 billion in 2023.

This decline placed a strain on many school districts, which had to cut other education spending to maintain busing. And many districts have been unable to raise enough funds to adequately maintain bus fleets and pay employees livable salaries. Many bus drivers and mechanics have left their careers or retired, and schools are finding it difficult to replace them.

Kemp's proposed budget for fiscal year 2025 would cover about 31% of school districts' total costs for transportation. And rather than a one-time grant, Kemp's push to include transportation in the education formula funding portion of the budget signals “that schools can expect this level of funding every year,” said Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

“It will be really good for schools to have these funds added to the budget,” Owens said. “If the General Assembly approves this … it will represent a huge leap in formula funding that will allow school districts to not only plan for school bus replacements, pay bus drivers and bus guards better wages, but also ensure that we have safer ones have buses.” on the way, [but] … they can reuse the funds received from other areas of the school to support instruction in other ways.”

While “this is an incredible step forward,” Owens said, “if we look at this as the last thing we had to do to support schools, in four years we will be in a position where we have a similar amount.” .” of underfunding for school districts.” Owens estimated that the total cost of student transportation in school districts increases by about $200 million every four years.

“So this can’t be an isolated incident,” he said. “It must be an integral part of how the General Assembly advocates for equity between counties and the state. There is still a big gap before we reach true parity.”

What's next?

House and Senate leaders have expressed strong support for Kemp's proposed fiscal year 2025 budget plan, which includes $1.4 billion in new education spending. In addition to increasing student transportation, the education budget also includes raises for teachers and new funding for school safety measures and expanding preschool programs.

Over the next month, budget writers in the House and then the Senate will consider the 2025 budget and propose changes. The changes must be approved in both chambers and then submitted to the governor by March 28, the last day of the legislative session. The governor will then sign or veto the bill. He can also choose to reject certain line items within the budget. Georgia's 2025 fiscal year begins July 1, 2024.

Read these related stories:

Georgia’s aging school buses, bus driver shortage lead to missed classes, meals and safety issues

Georgia’s struggling school bus system: Finding funds and drivers

School districts turn to bus monitors to address chronic driver shortage

School districts face long waits for new buses due to supply chain challenge

Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder at @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].