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The Senate Education Committee approved SB232 Thursday, which would reimburse busing costs of qualifying charter schools and those of sparsely populated but sprawling rural school districts.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate Education Committee approved SB232 Thursday, which would help reimburse busing costs of qualifying charter schools and those of sparsely populated but sprawling rural school districts.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, sponsor of SB232, said the reimbursements would be limited to schools districts in counties with total populations under 31,000 residents.

Charter schools seeking reimbursement must demonstrate that they have provided students transportation to and from school the past five years. Public charter schools receive no funding to cover student transportation costs so the costs come out of their instructional budgets.

Roberta Hardy, principal and founder of Pinnacle Canyon Academy, said the K-12 charter school in Price has been busing children to school since 2006. Its buses date back to the 1990s and have some 300,000 miles on them.

If the school didn't provide busing, it would lose a large share of its student body, she said. But the consequence of spending a large share of its budget on transportation means it pays less to teachers.

Public schools in the area pay starting teachers "$38,000 to walk in the door. I pay $26,000," Hardy said.

While some committee members were empathetic to the school's challenges, others said reimbursing charter schools' transportation costs was akin to opening "Pandora's box."

"I don’t think it's we deserve it more. It's just we don’t have any," Hardy said.

Kyle Hosler, business administrator for the San Juan School District, said school buses travel 672,000 a year in what is Utah's largest county in terms of land mass.

Not only are its buses traveling long distances, which means some students catch the bus shortly after 6 a.m., they travel such rough roads that maintaining the bus fleet is very expensive, Hosler said.

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Earlier this year, the frames of some new buses cracked after only 1½ months of use "on some of the roads we have to drive on," Hosler said.

"Any additional funding we can have would be a welcome blessing for our district, especially down in the southeast corner," he said.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, noted that the funding request to provide the reimbursements had not gone through the Legislature's appropriations process, so it may be difficult this late in the session to fund the estimated $4.5 million Hinkins is seeking.

The committee's action moved the bill to the Senate for further consideration.