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Md. District Seeking $50 Annual Transportation Fee for Students

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In an effort to raise needed funds, the Montgomery County, Md., school board is seeking a revenue builder that is rare in school districts nationwide: a $50 annual transportation fee for students.

Students in the suburban Washington district will need a ticket to ride the big yellow school bus beginning next fall if the county government approves the board's plan, which passed earlier this month, 5-2. Low-income and special-education students would be exempt.

The plan has touched off a debate, and some legal authorities say the measure could run afoul of the state constitution.

"We are now facing a circumstance where we have several constraints on the budget," said Steve Abrams, the board member who proposed the bus fee. "One way or another we have to find ways to meet our obligation to public education."

Boosting the Budget

The bus fee and a proposed $20-per-semester participation fee to pay for extracurricular activities would bring in an additional $3.5 million to the district, Mr. Abrams said, and would help offset a $13 million shortfall in the district's current $882 million budget.

The fees could also be used to help pay for new spending proposals included in the 121,000-student district's proposed $917 million budget for next year, he said, including the reinstatement of certain athletic programs, additional kindergarten classes, more media specialists in high schools, and expanded Head Start instruction.

In the past few years, school districts across the country have started charging fees for a variety of extras--from athletics to parking spaces to pompons. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

But a growing number of districts are weighing the idea of putting a price tag on school transportation as well.

"Charging for student transportation is an extension of charging for other things," said Gary Marx, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

"School leaders would prefer not to charge, but they are caught in a budget crunch and are looking in every direction they can to deal with their financial concerns," he said.

Paying Elsewhere

The Irvine, Calif., public schools charge parents $180 a year to help defray the costs of providing bus rides across the sprawling school district. Several other school systems in California and North Dakota also ask parents to pay for their children's transportation to school.

State courts in those two states have ruled that such a levy does not violate state constitutional provisions that guarantee a free public education.

But in Maryland, state education officials are questioning the legality of the Montgomery County school board's move.

Valerie V. Cloutier, the chief counsel for the state school board, said the Maryland Constitution requires that integral changes in the public education system--which includes the transport of students--must be carried out by the legislature.

"It's my understanding that the local board needs legislation giving them the authority to charge fees for bus transportation," she said last week.

And the lawyer for the local board, Judith S. Bresler, issued a statement last week saying that even if the state passes such as law, local boards may not be able to charge the fees if they violate the state constitution's guarantee of a free public education.

Some parents in Montgomery County who have scrutinized the bus-fee proposal are frustrated with the direction the board has taken.

"They are digging into our pockets again," said Leonard Goodman, whose 1st-grade daughter attends a local elementary school and rides a bus to school.

"It's disappointing that there have to be further surcharges on parents who are already paying property taxes" to cover such expenses, Mr. Goodman said.

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