Oregonians who want to see bike buses and walking school buses proliferate across the state have reason to cheer as the House Committee on Education voted unanimously in favor of House Bill 3014 Wednesday night. It’s a much different bill than lawmakers heard about at its first public hearing last month as backers have made major revisions to address concerns about fiscal responsibility and how it might impact traditional school bus service.
Also known as the “bike bus bill” after a bike bus at Alameda Elementary School in Portland helped spark unprecedented enthusiasm for how kids get to school, the original version of the bill would have simply added a list of new activities that would be eligible for reimbursement from the Oregon Department of Education as part of a district’s transportation funding expenses. Instead of only traditional school buses, the bill sought to expand the law to let districts fund things like bike buses, walking school buses, crossing guards, and public transit passes.
The amended bill (now six pages instead of two) voted on Wednesday creates a separate process and introduces significant bureaucratic hurdles for those reimbursements. The bill creates a statutory definition for “alternative transportation” (“the arrival to, or departure from, a school by means other than a school bus or school activity vehicle or transportation provided under contract with a school district”) and then lays out several steps districts would have to take in order to receive state funding.
The key changes to the bill are as follows:
- Districts must receive a waiver from the State Board of Education to transport students via a method other than a school bus (as laid out in ORS 327.043, which requires districts to provide transportation for elementary students who live more than one mile from school and for secondary students who live more than 1.5 miles from school).
- Or districts must submit a supplemental plan for the “alternative transportation” method and get approval from the State Board of Education prior to receiving a reimbursement.
- Costs will only be approved when districts have demonstrated that traditional busing is not a viable option. For instance, the state will only reimburse programs that serve students who do not live along an existing school bus route.
- Reimbursements for public transit passes will be allowed only after all state funding for local transit (as laid out in ORS 184.758) has been exhausted.
One source described the changes as “guardrails” added because some stakeholders feared schools might look to spend “millions” for new, non-bus programs. Others were concerned that the administrative overhead associated with the bill would strain the workforce and incur more personnel costs at the Oregon Department of Education.
The bill is championed by Representative Hoa Nguyen (D-48), a former school attendance coach and walking school bus leader who worked in the Portland Public Schools district and saw first-hand how limited access to school buses left many kids without reliable transportation. “I used the walking school bus as an intervention to chronic absenteeism,” Rep. Nguyen shared with me from her office in Salem this morning. “It improved our tardy rates, attendance rates, behavior in the classrooms, and by just learning about the communities that the students live in.”
Since current law only funds bus service for students that live more than one mile (for elementary) or 1.5 miles (for secondary) away from their schools; and with many students not living near a bus stop or in places buses don’t reach, Rep. Nguyen says her bill creates more local control so districts can fund solutions that work for their specific needs.
“For for a long time, [instead of taking a step back and thinking about a transportation plan] districts just said, ‘Oh, a school bus driver.’ That’s all we did. And so hopefully this bill will open up the gateway to let school districts sit down and think about, ‘What can we do?'”, Rep. Nguyen said.
In the last month, Rep. Nguyen and other chief sponsor Rep. Khanh Pham (D-46) realized the bill must undergo considerable revisions or risk losing key support. They are also aware that all bills with a fiscal component are closely scrutinized this legislative session as lawmakers are hesitant to start new funding programs; and with some school districts still reeling from a school bus driver shortage that started during the pandemic, supporters realized the bill would not move forward if it threatened funding for existing programs.
That concern was evident in testimony on the bill (shared prior to recent amendments) from leaders of the Oregon School Boards Association and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators: “We do not know how other districts will be impacted if new districts may seek new funding reimbursement. We do not know how many districts would seek supplemental transportation plans. Or how well these alternative programs work in adverse weather. Or the potential impact across general and special education student populations. Or how safe students and staff will be outside a physical bus,” they wrote.
Rep. Nguyen addressed those concerns when she introduced the bill at the committee meeting Wednesday. “I would like to remind us what I believe our main objective here is to serve our students and families. I’m here to represent the students that have no safe or reliable means to get to school, because they do not have anyone else in the room to speak for them,” she said.
Bob Estabrook with the Oregon School Employees Association, a union that represents 22,000 public school workers, told lawmakers that the problem with HB 3014 is that is does nothing to address the school bus driver shortage and he’s worried it would divert funds from busing. “Even with the greatly improved amendments… it’s not addressing the core problem, which is that we do not have enough bus drivers and other district staff to make sure that we are safely getting our students to and from school,” he said during testimony in Salem on Wednesday. “We are already not adequately funding our educational system… and if we divert funds towards other purposes, then we never are going to have enough money there to hire the bus drivers that we need to support our students,” he added.
Stacey Michaelson, government affairs administrator for the six school districts in East Multnomah County, reassured lawmakers that the bill will not jeopardize existing budgets. “We’ve really tried to tighten the language as much as possible to make sure that we’re not requiring any additional funding out of the transportation grants,” she explained. “The idea is to give districts more flexibility in how they use their dollars, not to give them more dollars to do things differently.”
The Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, the state body that determines budgetary implications of new bills, says the fiscal impact of HB 3014 would be “indeterminate.” Further analysis will be completed at the bill’s next stop: the House Committee on Revenue.
Oregon Walks Interim Executive Director Zachary Lauritzen said his organization is “thrilled” at last night’s vote. “It goes to show that supporting active transportation policy doesn’t have to be left or right, Democrat or Republican. Getting people out of cars is just good policy,” he shared with us via email. Lauritzen acknowledged that the amended bill included major compromises from the original version, but added that, “It’s a start! And it can be a toehold for proving how active transportation can be a full-fledged tool for getting kids to school safely.”
Another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Khanh Pham (D-46), called the passage a “big win for giving schools more flexibility in supporting multi-modal transportation choices.”
While the new version of the bill adds considerable red tape that might limit its use and impact, Rep. Nguyen says earning the trust of taxpayers is paramount. “We have to build trust of the public… we have to be fiscally responsible as well… We have limited funds and there are challenges,” she said.
And Sam “Coach” Balto, captain of the Alameda Elementary Bike Bus who is currently at the Bike Bus Summit in Barcelona, Spain, told us, “I am excited bike bus bill is still rolling.”
Glad it’s moving forward, bummed it’s in such a form that it almost seems like it’ll do nothing. They’re like, “we have this problem we’d like to spend zero dollars to fix (read: look like we did something), because spending money might take away funding from drivers, for which funding was not the problem”. Even though, of course funding is the problem for drivers, they need to pay more.
You build trust in voters by making effective policy that works even if that means spending! Honestly it sometimes feels hard to justify voting at all, these losers that win seem hell bent on doing nothing expensively.
But I really am glad even this nice gesture (gestures are free) is moving forward.