SALT LAKE CITY — A grant process that educators have described as "cumbersome" means funding for school bus service along unsafe routes was largely untapped in the 2016-17 academic year.
Of $500,000 earmarked for bus service needed "due to health or safety concerns," just $62,300 was expended in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.
The program was created during the 2016 legislative session and offered school districts grants of up to $75,000 to provide bus service in places where it's dangerous for students to walk. Only Alpine, Duchesne and South Sanpete school districts received grants in 2017.
Members of the Utah Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday considered whether to continue the categorical program, move the funding into the "to and from school" pupil transportation fund or shift the appropriation into the weighted pupil unit, the basic building block of public education funding.
Applicants must describe the route to state funders and submit a written statement from the school district, local law enforcement and the municipality describing why the route is unsafe.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he wonders if sidewalk construction would be a better use of the funds.
"We're really accomplishing the same thing, and that's protecting children who walk and have to walk," Hillyard said.
It is particularly critical in rural areas where students walk along highways and county roads that have sidewalks, he said.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said it was surprising to see that so few urban districts had applied for the funding.
"I know in my district, a charter school was actually created as a result of a school closure and parents not wanting their children to cross a very, very busy street as elementary school students," she said.
The state provides transportation funding to districts where buses travel more than 1.5 miles from students' homes to traditional elementary schools or more than 2 miles to secondary schools. "Unsafe routes" are shorter distance but deemed health or safety hazards.
The committee directed public education officials to meet with the Utah Department of Transportation to discuss the issue of safe travel to and from schools, and lawmakers encouraged local officials to likewise take part to develop recommendations how to move forward.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said it is important that local officials share the responsibility of student safety as they go to and from school — "especially on new developments."