Bus transport bill for Laf. charter schools pulled

A Lafayette legislator pulled his bill Tuesday that would have required the Lafayette Parish School Board to give free bus rides to charter school students.

State Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, said he decided to pull the bill because he wants to take a second look at other ways to cover the costs.

“We’re going to turn the bill into a study and hopefully we can collaborate with the Lafayette Parish School Board and charter schools to come up with ways to provide transportation to students in the Youngsville and Lafayette areas,” Pierre said.

Pierre had filed HB 1208 to require school districts with populations between 195,000 and 225,000 based on the 2010 census to provide free transportation service to charter schools. Based on the population requirements, the bill would apply only to Lafayette Parish, where 221,578 people resided in 2010.

Pierre deferred his proposed legislation during a House Education committee meeting Tuesday and told committee members he’d request a resolution to study the transportation issue.

Pierre said last week that he proposed the legislation because of calls from constituents interested in the charter schools, but unable to get their children to the schools due to work or no means of transportation.

“These are lower socio-economic areas with parents who because of the job situation cannot get them to and from the schools,” Pierre said.

State law generally requires school systems to provide transportation to nonpublic school students, though it does allow for some exemptions.

It costs the Lafayette Parish school system an estimated $1,000 per student each year to provide transportation to nonpublic-school students in the parish, said Billy Guidry, School Board chief financial officer.

About 1,500 nonpublic-school students ride the bus, according to information provided by the school system. So far, a total of 1,523 students have accepted seats to attend the three charter schools.

Charter schools receive state and local funding — just like traditional public schools — but no law requires them to provide transportation for students.

Pierre said one option the study could investigate further is school districts retaining a portion of the money the state provides for students enrolled in charter schools to cover the district’s costs to provide transportation for those students.

“We’ll have some time to dialogue and come up with ways to come up with transportation in our district,” Pierre said.

Pierre said no one affiliated with the charter schools’ management companies, National Heritage Academies and Charter Schools USA, contacted him about proposing the legislation.

Representatives from both companies also said they did not request the legislation.

Each charter school made parents aware that transportation would not be provided during informational sessions held prior to the schools’ initial application deadline.

Charter Schools USA manages 58 schools in seven states and makes transportation decisions based on the needs of its students, said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, of Florida.

The company expects to enroll at least 1,031 students at Lafayette Renaissance Charter Academy and Acadiana Renaissance Charter Academy when those schools open in August.

“We do provide busing at some schools in other states. In Louisiana, specifically, we provide busing at two of our Lake Charles schools,” Reynolds said in an email.

Reynolds said academics are a priority for the company’s schools and its budgets reflect that. However, she said, the company does not want transportation issues to be a barrier for students, and transportation plans are worked out as needed.

“If we determine that a lack of transportation is a significant barrier to access, we work with the local school district, parents and business partners to develop innovative transportation solutions that provide the best access options for students,” she said.

National Heritage Academies provides busing at 12 of its partner schools in Indiana, New York, Ohio and Michigan, said Jennifer Hoff, communications manager for NHA.

For its two new schools in Louisiana that open in August — Willow Charter Academy in Lafayette and Advantage Charter Academy in Baker — the company worked with its partner school board to identify school sites accessible to families.

“The schools to open this fall, Advantage Charter Academy in Baker, and Willow Charter Academy in Lafayette, are both on the local bus routes to ease the burden of transportation that some families may face,” Hoff said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter @Marsha_Sills.