One mile isn’t a great distance, but it’s more than many parents are willing to let their kinder­gartners walk or bike to school.

Still, anything less than one mile is considered walking distance for elementary students in Oregon. This matters because school districts are not required to provide transportation for students living within walking distance of school.

Bend-La Pine Schools follows the state’s minimum transportation requirements. It generally offers school bus service only to elementary students living farther than one mile from school. The district provides bus service only to older students living farther than 1.5 miles from school, which is considered walking distance for kids in middle school and high school.

Most students in Bend-La Pine Schools are not eligible for bus service.

For various reasons, then, many parents drive their kids to school, causing sometimes significant traffic congestion in the process. They do it to accommodate tight schedules, to allow for extra sleep, to keep them from walking through snow and rain and because they want them to be safe.

Still, according to national studies, the safest way to get to school is to take the bus. Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely if they ride in a school bus instead of a car, according to the American School Bus Council. The last time the state had a fatal accident involving a child on a school bus was in 1976, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

School districts use state funds to pay for bus service. Bend-La Pine and other districts use a formula to find the average cost per student for bus service, then submit that figure to the Oregon Department of Education. ODE then ranks those numbers from the nearly 200 school districts statewide from most expensive to least. Districts in the 90th percentile for cost per student get reimbursed for 90 percent of their school bus costs. Districts in the 80th percentile get reimbursed for 80 percent of school bus costs, and districts in the 70th percentile get reimbursed for 70 percent of costs.

Bend-La Pine Schools generally gets reimbursed for 70 percent of its costs each year. In the 2017-18 school year, the state is expected to send the district $5.3 million for busing.

A few schools in Bend-La Pine offer no bus service, and they are all elementary magnet schools: Amity Creek, Highland and Westside Village. At about half of the schools that do offer bus service, it’s available to less than half of students, according to Bend-La Pine Schools. Districtwide, roughly 60 percent of eligible students ride the bus to school.

The district makes some changes to bus services in circumstances where it’s not safe for children to walk to school, even if they live within 1 or 1.5 miles of school.

“We wouldn’t ever require students to cross Third Street, for instance,” said Kim Crabtree, the district’s transportation department director.

Other considerations include whether there is a safe shoulder or sidewalk along a road for students to walk, whether a walk would include students crossing railroad tracks, and what the speed limit in the area is. In areas that have those challenges for students living within the walking zone, the district may submit a request to the state to get extra funding to serve those areas via bus.

But in areas where there are temporary barriers to walking, such as construction zones, Bend-La Pine is more likely to change bus service and pay for the cost with district money instead of state money.

“We might add buses into construction zones,” Crabtree said, adding that bus stops change all of the time, including sometimes during severe winter weather. The school district may change the bus stop to a location that’s safer for students to reach. The district hasn’t considered offering more bus service because of the snow during Central Oregon winters, though, Crabtree said.

Bend-La Pine wouldn’t be physically able to transport all of its students to school, Crabtree said.

“It would be a real burden on the system,” she said. “Obviously if it was required we’d find a way to do it.”

If a student lives within the walking zone, it’s the family’s responsibility to figure out how to get him or her to school, she said, but the district does provide some support and references.

What the district refers to as “courtesy rides,” for example, are highly common, Crabtree said. Families can make arrangements for their students to use the bus if they are within the walking zone: A parent can drop off a student at the stop or the student can walk there. That can make sense for families if, for example, the bus stop is a closer walk from a student’s house than school is.

Bend-La Pine also refers parents to contact the local chapter of Safe Routes to School, a program that offers maps of safe routes and helps communities coordinate “walking school buses” and “bike trains.” In Bend, Commute Options, a group promoting forms of transportation other than driving alone, oversees Safe Routes to School.

Generally, the more rural a school or school district is, the more bus service it offers because more students live farther from school, according to Michael Wiltfong, the state’s school finance and facilities director. The district’s La Pine schools have the highest percentages of eligibility for bus service: At La Pine Middle School, 88 percent of the approximately 300-student school can take the bus. In the 2016-17 school year, 95 percent of those eligible did.

The district’s four high schools have some of the lowest participation rates for those who are eligible to ride the bus — perhaps unsurprisingly, because that’s when students become old enough to drive. At Summit High School, 36 percent of students who could ride the bus in 2016-17 did.

School districts can choose to bus more students than are required, but it’s rare, Wiltfong said.

The state’s rate of busing students is higher than Bend-La Pine’s. Statewide, a little more than half of students — about 300,000 — are bused each school year, with buses traveling about 65 million miles.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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