The Brevard County School Board Tuesday discussed cutting the choice busing program from its proposed budget for 2021, a move which — while far from being final — provoked widespread consternation by parents on social media.
The recommendation to cut the program — which helps students attend choice schools throughout the county or supplement their schooling with transportation to specialized vocational training at certain schools — was proposed by superintendent Mark Mullins and supported by all five board members as they discussed what to include in next year's the budget proposal.
The need to find budget cuts is being driven by financial, logistical and staffing considerations, according to Brevard Schools spokesman Matt Reed, who said the choice busing program costs the district about $1 million a year.
"Transportation in general is one of our more difficult costs to cover, because... state funding for it really only covers about half of the projected cost," he said.
"It has been logistically very difficult to start, to maintain, and to plan and run because we have a chronic shortage of drivers to cover the route," Reed added.
The coronavirus pandemic also plays a part, as bus drivers need to cover more routes to comply with social distancing requirements for fewer kids on the buses, Reed said. In addition, many school bus drivers are older and in a higher risk categories for COVID-19.
The pandemic is already projected to create setbacks for the School District.
Officials anticipate an $11.6 million loss in sales surtax revenue this year due to COVID-19 that would have been put towards repairing the county's aging schools. This represents a 16% drop in surtax revenue, according to the district's data. This was caused by a precipitous drop in consumer spending between March and April amid the state shutdown.
The school district already faced a $13 million projected shortfall heading into next school year, not counting the costs brought on by the pandemic.
Earlier this month Brevard Public Schools said it expected to receive up to $15 million in COVID-19 federal relief aid.
Reed said the proposed budget wouldn't be publicized until July, at which point a period for public comments and feedback would begin.
According to Reed, school board members who had initially advocated for the program "expressed regret" at the prospect of cutting it.
"They still believe in, you know, enabling everybody to have the ability to go to programs of their choice," Reed said.
Among them, school board member Misty Belford, who represents District 1 which includes Titusville and other northern parts of the county, who Reed said asked "to see if there was any way to find an alternative, or options using savings from the COVID-19 school closures, to the facilitate that transportation."
"But we don't know what that is yet," he added.
According to Reed, the board will look for ways to address the inequity of access to programs that choice busing was meant to address.
There are more choice programs in the south and central parts of the county, meaning students in the north of the county would likely feel the impacts of cuts to the program more strongly, Reed said.
Choice busing was suspended before, in 2016. At that time, the school district did not provide school bus services to choice schools out of financial considerations. A private charter that had provided services up to that point backed out and no other company could fill the void.
Separately, Brevard Public Schools had to refit nearly 100 school buses that are among more than 50,000 recalled nationwide in late 2019 over concerns the seats don't have enough padding to protect against a crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, issued a recall report Oct. 4 on certain Thomas Built Buses equipped with seats that "may not provide sufficient impact absorption in certain specific areas around the steel seat frame of the back support."
The recall involves four models of Thomas Built Buses made between 2014 and August 2019. There have been no reported injuries or deaths associated with defect, the administration noted in the report.