SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Parents and educators said they were relieved Thursday after state lawmakers changed their minds and voted against targeting school bus service in a midyear budget cut to education.
The move alters a $248 million school transportation spending cut lawmakers included in the state budget they passed last summer. The cut was to take effect automatically at the start of the year because tax revenue was running well behind projections, but many school districts objected.
Both houses of the Legislature approved the bill, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown, who was expected to sign it.
"I'm so excited," Cinnamon Paula said after the vote. Paula, a parent of four, helped organize opposition to the cuts in the Southern Humboldt Unified School District, which covers 700 square miles in far Northern California.
"I think we would have lost a third of our school district," said Paula, who lives in Redway, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. "They would have had to be home-schooled or left the area because they couldn't have gotten to school."
She created a Facebook page focused on the transportation cuts, helped organize a protest trip last month to Sacramento attended by more than 200 parents, children and other North Coast residents, and arranged for opponents to email and telephone the governor's office every day.
Eliminating or significantly reducing bus service would have had the greatest effect on rural districts, where students often travel long distances to get to and from school. Lawmakers listened and said school districts can absorb the spending cut anywhere in their overall budgets.
The measure would take effect immediately if Brown signs it into law, but it would protect transportation funding only through the rest of the current school year. Brown is proposing to eliminate the funding in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The governor wants to switch to a formula that would replace nearly all school categorical programs, including home-to-school transportation.
Paula remains concerned about Brown's proposal, and her feelings are shared even in a much different school system.
"This transportation cut really got the attention of the community," said Edgar Zazueta, director of government relations for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the highest enrollment in the state.
The district had voted to sue the state when the cut took effect last month. Overcrowding in some schools forces the district to bus certain students on lengthy trips through rush-hour traffic.
The superintendent and school board decided to continue providing transportation even if that meant taking money from classrooms and other programs, Zazueta said.
Despite Thursday's vote, the district's lawsuit is likely to continue because SB81 only helps school districts this fiscal year.
"We are on the hook to provide these services whether we get the state funding or not," Zazueta said.
Allan Clark, president of the California School Employees Association, said in a statement that the Legislature's action was a relief to thousands of students and parents.
SB81 cleared the Assembly 54-4 and the Senate 26-8. In the Assembly, some lawmakers representing suburban areas objected or abstained because their districts would lose more money under the funding shift.
"We're going to gore one district to fix another," said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, who did not vote.
Supporters of the legislation said some districts will indeed lose some money under the change but can survive. They argued the transportation cuts would have been devastating to other districts and the children who rely on the service.
"It all boils down to this: Children cannot learn if they cannot get to school," said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield, D-Sherman Oaks, who carried the bill.
The fix for this budget year "is a Band-Aid on the problem," Blumenfield said.
Some Republicans criticized majority Democrats for approving the school transportation trigger cut as part of the budget last summer, without GOP support. Blumenfield countered that the cuts might not have been needed had Republican lawmakers supported the governor's proposal to extend temporary tax increases that have since expired.
"What phantom money are you smoking?" he asked Republican critics.
Before lawmakers agreed to revise the spending cut, some school districts were scrambling to find ways to keep the buses running. Some planned to tap reserves so students would not be stranded.
In the tiny Hughes-Elizabeth Lakes Union School District, in the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County, the school board was considering charging parents a fee for busing. In Southern Humboldt Unified, which covers 700 square miles in far Northern California, school officials were looking at consolidating bus routes and making elementary schools drop-off points for secondary students, Superintendent Jim Stewart said.
Some school districts, such as Palo Verde Unified in Riverside County, were starting to consider online learning and expanding independent study programs for students who would be unable to make it to a physical school.
The district buses about 20 percent of its 3,500 students, some of them from 45 miles away near the Arizona border. Eliminating busing also would severely affect athletic programs because teams travel great distances to games and meets, said Palo Verde Superintendent Bob Bilek, who was interviewed before Thursday's legislative vote.
"We cannot simply stop busing," he said.
Associated Press writer Christina Hoag in Los Angeles contributed to this report.