Taken for a Ride: Investigating school transportation costs - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Taken for a Ride: Investigating school transportation costs

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FARLEY (KWWL) -

Are you paying more for school transportation costs than other people?

Where you live depends how much of your tax money is spent on getting students to an from school, regardless if you have children in school.

Before the sun rises over eastern Iowa every morning, Brian and Sheri Gaul of Luxemberg are getting their seven kids ready for school.

After breakfast and wrapping up last-minute preparations, their school bus driver pulls in the yard, and it's miles and mostly smiles until getting to school.

The Gauls say the bus system allows them to focus on work.

"Because, we milk at 3:30 in the morning, just to get them on the bus, and we still have work to do. They get out of school at 3, we start milking at 3:30 in the afternoon. So, it's almost impossible," Sheri said.

The Gauls family dairy farm is nearly 40 miles away from school, and even though most eastern Iowans can relate to sending their children to school by bus, the Western Dubuque School District is the largest in the state geographically, covering more than 550-square miles, and spanning across five counties.

"In our situation, we spend a little over nine percent of our regular program district cost on getting the kids to and from school," Western Dubuque Superintendent, Rick Colpitts said.

Rural educators say they have to spend more money of their budgets on transportation costs on things like buses, fuel, and even repairs.

They do that because state funding is based on student enrollment and not miles traveled.

For perspective, the Western Dubuque and Urbandale School Districts have nearly the same enrollment, so they get the same money from the state's general fund.

That goes for every public school, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

However, their transportation costs are considerably different.

The Western Dubuque School District covers five counties, where the Urbandale District is only one, spanning six-square miles, compared to Western Dubuque's nearly 550-square miles.

According to public record, it costs Western Dubuque more than $1,848,947.79 to get students to and from school, where Urbandale's District comes in at nearly $714,734.49.

That's an additional $1,134,213.30 Western Dubuque District taxpayers are obligated to pay to offset transportation costs.

"So, nine percent of our money goes towards that. Most districts, it's under five percent of that cost. So, there's a pretty big difference," Colpitts said.

Fortunately, Western Dubuque Transportation Supervisor, Ernie Bolibaugh, is always looking to save taxpayers money, whether it's tracking their 43 routes using GPS, purchasing bigger buses to haul students, maintaining their 72 buses at their Farley transportation hub, even managing daily transfers where students get off one bus and on another -- like the Gaul children do every day.

"It does save us a lot of time. It does save us a lot of driving the same roads. We can do it with fewer drivers which all helps us keep our costs down," Ernie said.

"That's one piece of it. The other piece is when there's road construction or weather that impedes our progress in a district this size, we may have some significant snowfall in one corner of the district and the other corner of the district isn't. So, we have to make decisions based on all routes based on what the weather is like in only one part of the district," Colpitts said.

Despite higher costs, rural families like the Gauls say driving their children to school every day would be nearly impossible.

"Oh. A lot-lot-lot-lota extra work. A lot of time on the road, and to be honest with you, I don't know how we could get it done," Sheri said.

And, semi-retired drivers like Dennis Duwe say the routes give them the opportunity to work part-time.

"My day starts, and I say a prayer that all bus drivers, where they may be, they can get kids safely to school, and they can get them home at the end of the day," Duwe said.

As a reminder, we asked Iowa Department of Education leaders why districts' transportation costs aren't based on mileage, and we were told 'funding contribution was only based on enrollment, not mileage' -- unlike some other states.

If you would like to compare transportation costs for school districts in your area and to see whether your school is being taken for a ride, you can click here.

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