Cutting School Buses Would Spell Disaster for CA’s Desert Communities
By Alejandra Alarcon and Rogelio Montaño
New America Media
Governor Jerry Brown recently announced that midyear budget cuts could include a reduction of school transportation budgets by $1.5 million throughout California. The news was met with horror by students, parents and community members in the eastern Coachella Valley, an agricultural region overlapping Riverside and Imperial counties where small towns are separated by miles of highway and the oppressive heat of the desert sun can make walking or biking long distances feel like a death sentence.
“In this district, transportation is a must,” said Linda Aguirre, director of transportation for Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD). “A lot of these kids would not be able to get to school without transportation, which means there will most likely be a higher drop-out rate.”
Although a final decision on the budget cut is still pending, many in the community have been left to wonder what the fallout would be for students and district staff.
“Rumors are flying,” said Steven Young, student transport specialist at Coachella Valley High School (CVHS), who explained that $1.5 million is equivalent to cutting 10 bus drivers. “This is going to affect us big time.”
Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), a community based advocacy group in the east valley, is representing local residents who are worried about these looming transportation cuts.
“(The cuts) would leave the youth stranded,” said Allex Luna, a community organizer for ICUC. “How’s this going to affect them academically?”
Transportation cuts could lead to a chain reaction that affects families and students, said Luna, ultimately leading to a drastic decline in school attendance and a vicious cycle that could lead to even more budget cuts.
“Every time [a student] is in that seat, the school gets paid,” said Luna, meaning that a decrease in school attendance will lead to even less funding for local schools.
According to Luna, more than three-fourths of the district’s student population currently takes the bus.
Some students, such as Yesenia Isidoro, say that even if transportation budgets are cut, they’ll do whatever it takes to graduate high school.
“I wouldn’t want to let my parents down,” said Isidoro, a senior at Coachella Valley High School (CVHS). “I think I would buy a bike so I could get to school every morning.”
Others, like Diana Reza, a sophomore at CVHS, said it’s hard to imagine making do with less, since the district’s school buses are already being stuffed to the max. “The bus already (has) three people per seat. I’m pretty sure all the bus doors would break because everyone just shoves and rushes in to find a good seat.”
The situation could be even worse for students living on the far eastern edge of the school district, in communities like Mecca and Thermal that tend to be poorer and more isolated.
“Transportation is already an issue. I couldn’t imagine how much more affected the students would be if bus routes were completely cut,” said Berenice Venegas, a junior at Desert Mirage High School. “I live in Mecca, [which] doesn’t have many resources.”
Safety is also a concern in east valley communities such as North Shore and Oasis, which do not have sidewalks or street lights, making it difficult and often dangerous for students to making the long walk to and from rural schools.
“It’s important to keep in mind that parents or guardians aren’t always going to have the opportunity to drive students to school every morning, due to their jobs or simply because they don’t own a vehicle,” added Venegas.
Despite the already challenging conditions faced by families in the east valley, district officials can only hope to maintain the status quo.
“Things are operating as normal, but for now we are just waiting for a decision,” said Linda Aguirre, director of transportation for CVUSD.
“Normal,” to some bus drivers already means carrying double loads and making several trips back and forth across the valley until every student arrives home.
“Buses have always been packed. In order to have one driver for one bus stop, we would have to hire more drivers, and unfortunately we don’t have that luxury,” said Aguirre.
As administrators await the official decision from the school board, ICUC has been proactive, researching the potential impact by having community organizers interview valley residents, and organizing group meetings with teachers and parents. They also plan to mobilize the community with press releases, phone calls and social media.
“In this district, transportation should be a right, not a privilege, because our district is very rural,” said Aguirre. “It is not safe to walk home.”
To join ICUC’s efforts, contact Allex Luna at (760) 398-0877 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on New America Media.