Lawmakers more than double state budget for student transportation, a boon for schools and parents

A Taliaferro County school bus in 2023. (Credit: Taliaferro County Schools)

This story is part of an ongoing investigation that looks at the state’s aging school buses and bus driver shortages  — a combination that is having a significant impact on the education of Georgia’s youth.

The Gist

After marathon budgeting sessions, lawmakers in the House and Senate agreed last week on final changes to the fiscal year 2025 budget. Among those agreements was to keep $205 million of the proposed $210 million increase for student transportation recommended by Gov. Brian Kemp, which more than doubles the state’s annual funding for school bus operations.

What's Happening

The news is a major — and long overdue — victory for schools and parents across the state who have long complained of an aging bus system that resulted in sometimes unsafe conditions for students and chronic breakdowns that left kids waiting at bus stops or missing their first period class.

“This influx allows us to fund 40% of [school districts’] operational costs now,” Roam Rusk, chief financial officer for the Department of Education, told the Senate Education and Higher Education Appropriations panel earlier this month.

In fiscal year 2025, which begins on July 1, the state plans to spend $354 million on pupil transportation, including $5 million for 4% pay increases.  The 2025 budget also includes an additional $20 million to purchase 227 new school buses.

Why It Matters

Over the past two decades, the state had steadily disinvested in the cost of transporting students to and from school, dropping its share of the total cost from about 50% in the 1990s to only about 17% of the total $1.1 billion cost in 2023. This left many school districts with aging bus fleets and insufficient funds to hire and retain bus drivers

Following a series of State Affairs stories documenting the plight of students stuck with poor transportation, Kemp proposed in late-January to more than double the state’s share of the student transportation budget for 2025.

Lisa Morgan, President, Georgia Association of Educators (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)
Lisa Morgan, President, Georgia Association of Educators (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

“So this increase certainly will begin to move that balance of state funding versus local funding back in line with what it historically was — that 50%,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “And it's going to allow districts options. If the state maintains their current funding for transportation, then it might allow districts to replace some of those aging buses. And I certainly hope that compensation for the bus drivers will increase. We know there is still a bus driver shortage and increased compensation could alleviate that somewhat.”

“As you could imagine, if you've been involved in a school system, you know if the student doesn't come to school, it's much more difficult for a teacher to educate that child,” said Erwin. “I'm not saying it's impossible — we've been through COVID. But the best form of education that we deliver each day is when the students are present at school, and get there safely and on time. So if we could pick up more of the burden of that cost, systems locally then could choose and pick where they spend their local money.” 

The state will pay an even greater share of the total cost of student transportation if Rep. Chris Erwin, R-Homer, has his way. 

Rep. Chris Erwin, D-Homer, chair of the House Education Committee.
Rep. Chris Erwin, D-Homer, chair of the House Education Committee. (Credit: Georgia House)

“We are definitely trending in the right direction. My desire would be that the state takes on an even bigger burden,” said Erwin, a retired school superintendent who is the chair of the House Education Committee, and a member of the House Appropriations Education subcommittee, who said he pushed hard for the transportation budget increase.

That may mean giving bus drivers raises or doing more maintenance on buses, he said, “or it may be they use it [funds] for addressing learning loss and improving literacy rates, also huge priorities for many districts.”

Morgan agreed, noting that more state funding for transportation “will also allow some districts to shift some of what they were spending on transportation to other priorities, to provide for perhaps more counselors, more school social workers, more of those needs that exist inside the school buildings.”

Sen. Elena Parent. (Credit: Tammy Joyner)

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Education and Higher Education subcommittee, said the $205 million pupil transportation budget increase “is a recognition that things had gotten untenable. We had heard some alarming things about the failure to fund school transportation at past levels. Clearly there’s a lot more to do, but it is gratifying for everyone in the public education community to see the governor and the General Assembly step up their obligations. We hope it continues and will be enhanced in next year’s budget.”

What's Next

The legislation including the 2025 budget has been sent to Kemp, who has 40 days to decide to sign or veto it. He can also choose to veto certain line items, but since strengthening the student transportation budget is one of his priorities, it’s expected to gain his approval.

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Have questions or comments? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajillor at [email protected]

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