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Published September 15 2010

Report: Formula cheats Moorhead schools

Moorhead is among the school districts Minnesota shortchanges in doling out transportation funds, says a new study by progressive St. Paul-based think tank Minnesota 2020.

The nonprofit presented the report, “The Wrong Way: Minnesota’s School Transportation Disparities,” on Tuesday in Moorhead. According to author John Fitzgerald, the state’s transportation funding formula is out of sync with real costs because it awards funds based on enrollment rather than miles driven or student usage. Thus, some districts receive as much as twice the money they spend on transportation, while others come up short.

Overall, based on the report, Minnesota funnels to districts some $48 million more for transportation than they spend – which doesn’t help those districts that get shortchanged.

“The funding formula is grossly unfair, especially to districts like Moorhead,” said Fitzgerald, Minnesota 2020’s education fellow.

In the 2008-09 school year, the most recent for which data was available, Moorhead’s transportation allocation fell $220,000 short of its actual expenses. The district is forced to tap resources that could go toward instruction to cover the difference.

Moorhead incurs one of the highest costs per mile driven in the area: $4.57, compared to, say, $1.73 in Ada-Borup or $2.49 in Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. Moorhead’s Transportation Director Dan Bacon explains the district’s buses pick up more students inside the city, pushing up gas and driver costs.

“Our mile is a slower mile, and that comes with higher labor costs,” he said.

Waubun is among the state’s 10 worst hit districts when it comes to per student transportation shortfalls. Meanwhile, other districts receive substantial transportation surpluses, such as about $250,000 in D-G-F.

Moorhead’s Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak says the deficit-plagued district is scrutinizing its transportation bill for ways to cut district costs.

He said officials are seriously considering widening the district’s busing radius from 1 to 2 miles. The district, which placed a levy referendum on the November ballot, works with three bus companies in addition to running its own small bus fleet.

“Historically that’s kind of how it’s been, but that’s something we’ll be taking a look at,” Kazmierczak said.

Other districts in the state are widening their busing radius to the 2 miles permitted by the state, the report says – a move that might compromise safety because school buses are the safest way of shuttling students to school. Districts are also cutting bus routes or service for after-school activities. Still others are switching to a four-day week.

“The formula needs to be fixed,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s not serving the districts and students in the way it ought to.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529