Baldwin district finds ‘in-town’ transportation fee structure violates state statute; refunds coming
After receiving word from Kansas Department of Education officials that the district's transportation fee structure violated state statute, the Baldwin school district will refund fees wrongly charged some “in-town” students to ride buses to and from school.
The finding came from the same Kansas Department of Education staffers who had previously told the district the fee structure was legal.
Faced with little new state funding for the coming school year, the district introduced the fee before the start of the 2013-2014 academic year. Commonly referred to as an in-town transportation fee, the charge actually applies to all students who live within 2.5 miles of their attendance center, whether they live in Baldwin City or outlying rural areas. The state provides the district compensation for students riding buses from residences more than 2.5 miles from their schools.
When instituted for the 2013-2014 school year, the district charged those students receiving lunches at reduced cost $37.50 a year, or half the fee of students paying full price for lunches. Those receiving free lunches were able to ride the bus for free.
This year, the board tweaked the annual transportation fee schedule, charging full-price lunch students $100, reduced-lunch students $50 and free-lunch students $25.
At Wednesday's Baldwin school board meeting, Superintendent Paul Dorathy said the Kansas Department of Education staff, including the department’s deputy commissioner and finance guru Dale Dennis, reviewed the proposed fee structure at the district's request before it was adopted and found it acceptable.
Another Department of Education staff member specializing in transportation subsequently told Baldwin district transportation director Tracy Rockers the district fee structure violated state statute. He maintained the district could not charge a transportation fee to students on free or reduced lunches or those on individual education plans developed for special needs students.
After the district asked Dennis for clarification, he found legislation supporting the transportation specialist’s view.
That means IEP and free and reduced-lunch students now living within 2.5 miles of their schools can ride district buses for free, Dorathy said. Furthermore, Dorathy said the district would attempt to refund those wrongly charged the fee.
Letters would be going out to parents explaining the situation, Dorathy said. He asked that parents be patient as he and district financial operations director Cynde Frick reviewed records.
“Cynde and I are going to work through this, but it’s not as simple as you would like,” he said. “We’ll get there, but it might not be a soon as some might want.”
Frick said she didn’t know how much the district would have to refund but said the district collected $11,000 for “in-town” riders for the 2013-2014 school year.
The news would put the in-town transportation question back before the board, Dorathy said. This spring, board members would need to decide whether it would end in-town busing entirely as some proposed in the summer of 2013 or increase the charge to those paying the fee to make up for lost revenue, he said.
In other business, the board:
• Approved a bid from Fisher Track to add a protective, stabilizing surface to the running track around the soccer field and repaint its markings for $62,954. The project follows work that JD Johnson has recently performed at the track to correct an error during its installation that left the outside lane too narrow.
• Approved a bid with McConnell and Associates to resurface the high school tennis court for $64,625 and another $15,000 to fill low spots underneath the concrete that is causing surface failure.
• Approved adding a $15,000 a year line item to the district’s capital outlay fund to start a rotation to replace the district’s athletic uniforms. The Kansas Legislature approved a measure last spring to allow districts to purchase uniforms with money from their capital outlay funds. The district ended the rotation with state budget cuts in 2008-2009, and teams have raised funds in the community for uniform updates since.
Board member Sandy Chapman questioned whether the money could be better spent on other needs and voted against the overall capital outlay fund plan presented to the board.
• Made annual appointments of board members to attendance-level site councils. Chad Christie and Greg Kruger were appointed to the BHS Site Council, Sheryl Gill and Ivan Huntoon to the BJHS Site Council and Nikki Tiller and Sandy Chapman to the Elementary Site Council. Board President Nick Harris would attend a meeting of all three site councils on a rotating schedule.