NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – While COVID-19-related disruptions took center stage in discussions on New Mexico’s education over the last year, ongoing issues still persist within the state’s education system, according to the 2021 annual report of the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC). One issue is student transportation, the report notes.

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“There’s no sugarcoating it,” wrote Rep. Christine Trujillo in a memo at the beginning of the report. Due to COVID-19, last year was “a terrible year for education that will permanently alter our children and scar their education.” And although “student transportation issues receded to the background during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report says, “many issues still exist, including equity of allocations among school districts and a fragmented system of school bus replacement.”

The problems came to light back in 2012, when LESC created a subcommittee to study school bus-related inefficiencies. “However, nine years later, the state has only implemented a few of the subcommittee’s recommendations,” the 2021 report says.

Each year, the state’s Public Education Department (PED) gives a transportation funding allocation to each school district and to state-chartered charter schools. But how much each district gets is based on an “overly complicated” formula that includes things like the size of the school district, the number of days in the school year, and the population density of the students living in the area, according to the report.

The funding formula also varies based on the number of students in the district. For example, in school districts with less than 1,000 students, 48% of their transportation funding is based on how many buses they have in operation, according to a 2021 LESC analysis of PED data. In larger school districts, the number of buses plays no role. And in state-chartered charter schools, 57% of their funding is based on the number of buses.

The result of this complex formula system is that sometimes funds are allocated according to a district’s needs. But other times, districts receive too much or too little, explains Tim Bedeaux, a former LESC policy analyst who studied the issue in the 2021 analysis.

When it comes to a district like Albuquerque, the formula system is “probably working as intended,” he says. “The students in Albuquerque are very dense, and you don’t have to travel quite as many miles to pick up a student and transport them to their local elementary school,” so funding the district based more heavily on the number of students transported, rather than the number of miles traveled, seems to make sense, he explains.

Meanwhile, state-chartered charter schools seem to be more frequently overfunded, data from PED shows. “Between 15 and 20 charter schools receive 2% of the [state’s] overall allocation and are unable to spend 5% to 30%,” Bedeaux wrote in the report.

This excess money isn’t necessarily wasted, Bedeaux says. It usually goes to the state’s Transportation Emergency Fund, where the money sits until a rainy day. “It just kind of sits there, and money in that fund can’t be appropriated by the legislature,” Bedeaux says. “And so, the legislature has an interest in essentially rightsizing these allocations and making sure the charter schools are getting what they need.”

PED data shows that from the fiscal year 2014 to the fiscal year 2020, charter schools returned an average of over $190,000 each year to the state’s Transportation Emergency Fund. Non-charter schools are also sometimes overfunded, the PED data shows, but on average, charter schools have historically been disproportionately overfunded.

And then there are school districts that say they’re underfunded. Rio Rancho Public Schools’ transportation budget, for example, has been underfunded for years, says Michael Baker, the district’s chief operating officer. “The state of New Mexico has, essentially, a policy that they would pay 100% of the transportation costs from each district,” Baker says. For Rio Rancho, “however, that has not been the case.”

During the 2016-2017 school year, Rio Rancho was short over $1.7 million, according to a presentation the district gave to the Legislative Education Study Committee in June of this year. The 2017-2018 shortfall was over $836,000 and the 2018-2019 shortfall was over $1.3 million, the presentation shows. To make up the difference, Rio Rancho pulls from their operational fund.

“What happens is that you’re actually taking money out of the classroom, in order to prop up the budget for transportation,” Baker explains. “We have to reduce the funding, essentially, for schools, in order to adequately fund our transportation, because we have to get kids to school.”

The funding from the state comes up short because Rio Rancho doesn’t fit into the complex funding formula, says Tim Bedeaux. “Rio Rancho is classified as a large school district, but Rio Rancho also has those elements of a small school district that make it difficult to transport students,” he explains.

Despite a large number of students in Rio Rancho, some of the bus routes are quite rural, he says. “The formula is not addressing Rio Rancho’s needs particularly well.”

The solution Baker from Rio Rancho proposes: Ditch the funding formula and simply review and approve each district’s budget according to their individual needs. “The way I see it,” Baker from RRPS says, “We submit our transportation budgets to PED [New Mexico Public Education Department], they can take a look at those budgets, they can see if they’re reasonable. And if they’re reasonable, they should fund it.”

“We take spending taxpayer money very seriously,” Baker adds. “We do not believe that our budget is exorbitant. We pay for our bus drivers and what it takes to maintain our fleet in order to get the kids to school.”

Despite what Rio Rancho says, Antonio Ortiz, the director of student services and transportation at NMPED maintains that there’s no issue with the formula. “In my position, I don’t see that there’s an issue with it,” Ortiz told KRQE. “It is equalized. If there was problems with it, I would be one of the first to know because I would get all of the complaints.”

“There’s two school districts that continually do complain,” he adds Rio Rancho and Las Cruces. “It’s not anything new,” he says. But for everyone else, “on a broad spectrum, I think it’s working.”

The debate over public school transportation funding seems to come up every once in a while, he says. But for a meaningful change to occur, it would have to happen in the New Mexico legislature. After all, they’re the ones that set the formula into law — NMPED has to follow what the statute says.

As for implementing a case-by-case funding system: “It would be tough. It would be hard to manage,” Ortiz adds. “With the staffing level we have at the department, it would almost be impossible.”

Across the US, various states use various funding mechanisms to help get kids to school. New Mexico joins seven other states that use some sort of formula with multiple factors, according to data from Safe Routes Partnership, a nonprofit working to improve student transportation. Some other states use a formula focused on the “unit cost” of each mile driven or the “unit cost” of each student transported. Others provide a lump sum based on the number of students. And some states reimburse districts based on expenditures.