Lauded by the governor as a victory for 'school choice," demand for state funding of charter school transportation has been slow to materialize. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)
Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo earlier this year secured for charter schools their first ever pool of dedicated money for transportation, calling it “a critical part of expanding and enhancing school choice opportunities in our state.”
But, so far, schools haven’t had to fight over the funding.
As of late August, only $1.2 million of the available $7 million in funding had been awarded to just 11 schools.
The dedicated transportation funding included as part of an education bill sponsored by Lombardo and subject to heavy negotiations with Democrats who control the Nevada Legislature. The bill set aside $14 million for student transportation at charter schools – $7 million for use in the current academic year and $7 million for the 2024-25 academic year.
Nevada State Public Charter School Authority board members at their Aug. 25 meeting expressed some concern about the possibility of there being unspent money, and they publicly encouraged charter schools to “step up” and put forth transportation plans before an upcoming deadline.
“We fought too hard to get transportation for our schools,” said member Tamika Shauntee Rosales. “I don’t even want to know what my mind would do, or my physical self would do, if we were to lose those funds that everybody has worked so hard to get.”
The Charter School Authority is accepting applications for transportation funding until Sept. 30, with those applications expected to come before the Charter School Board for approval in mid-October. If there is still money available, the authority plans to reopen applications. Any unspent money will revert back to the state at the end of the year.
Executive Director Rebecca Feiden told board members at the Aug. 25 meeting she knew of “at least four” additional schools who intend to apply for funding while “a handful of others” have expressed interest.
Feiden noted that the majority of applicants have been smaller charter schools – a trend that affects the total dollar amount the authority can hand out, since the amount of money each school can receive is based on enrollment. Charter school enrollment varies, from fewer than 100 students at a newly opened independent charter school that offers only a few grade levels, to more than 9,000 students connected to one chain with multiple schools across Southern Nevada.
“I was hoping – I’m still hoping – that some of our larger schools will apply,” Feiden added.
“It’s a challenge. We want to get every dollar out the door and advocate and say we spent every dollar responsibly and effectively. We said we needed it.” – David Blodgett, former principal of Nevada Prep Academy
“It’s a challenge. We want to get every dollar out the door and advocate and say we spent every dollar responsibly and effectively. We said we needed it.”
– David Blodgett, former principal of Nevada Prep Academy
Opportunity 180, an education nonprofit that administers federal charter grants in Nevada, has been assisting school leaders with possible transportation plans. CEO Jana Wilcox Lavin told the Current there are “definitely additional schools in the pipeline.”
But she acknowledged there are barriers that may be holding back some charter schools, especially larger ones, from wanting to attempt daily student transportation.
It is a logistical challenge to launch a successful school transportation program from scratch, especially on short notice, said Wilcox Lavin. The dedicated funding passed the legislature at the end of the regular session in June, and the state began accepting applications in July, mere weeks before most schools were beginning classes.
Another factor is that the money is not guaranteed beyond two years. Lombardo’s bill secured $14 million for the biennium, but the issue of transportation funding, whether permanent or one-time, will have to be addressed at the next regular session in 2025.
“So all of these are layered challenges,” added Wilcox Lavin. “Should there be remaining funds, I believe the authority, or I am hopeful they will expend those at schools that have the greatest need for them.”
Gov. Lombardo’s office also expressed confidence in the transportation funding program.
“The State Public Charter School Authority is continuing its work in reviewing applications,” read a statement provided to the Current, “but our office is confident that they will maximize the use of the funds for the benefit of charter school families.”
Buses (and beyond)
David Blodgett until this summer was the principal of Nevada Prep Academy, the only charter school in the state to offer daily transportation to students. He has since left the school to launch a company, Bright Yellow Lines, that will run contract bus service for charter schools across Southern Nevada.
Several of the charter schools that have already been awarded funds are contracting with Bright Yellow Lines to provide bus routes near their campuses. That group includes Battle Born Academy, Sage Collegiate and Nevada Prep Academy, which previously ran their program in house using their own funds but will now double their scope with the new funding they received from the state.
Traditional school districts typically have dedicated transportation departments, Blodgett said, so it makes sense for independent charter schools to use a third party provider that can offer expertise in transportation issues and have scalability.
Blodgett said he doesn’t see how the $7 million is spent unless the big charter schools jump into the fray.
He theorizes that some of those larger schools may not see providing daily transportation as a priority because their seats are already filled and they have wait lists of students who are able to attend without the school offering bus service. Several of the schools he is working with are under-enrolled and hoping offering bus services can be the decider that nudges prospective students into enrolling.
“That’s why this year is so high stakes,” said Blodgett. “It’s a challenge. We want to get every dollar out the door and advocate and say we spent every dollar responsibly and effectively. We said we needed it.”
Bright Yellow Lines is currently in the process of buying additional school buses, an endeavor he says is time consuming. New buses are cost prohibitive at over $200,000 a piece, so Blodgett is scouring nearby states for used buses that won’t break his budget but will still be able to pass the required inspections.
“I am out here competing with school districts and survivalists for buses,” he joked.
Blodgett is hopeful that a new wave of applications will be filed seeking transportation funding for less traditional programs.
At least three schools are already approved to use their funding to purchase shuttle vans that will specifically serve students who are chronically truant or absent.
Discovery Charter’s Sandhill campus received funding to operate a van “specifically for getting students with transportation insecurities to and from school every day.” The school had a chronic absenteeism rate of 57% last year.
(For comparison, Clark County School District, which last week launched its own campaign to reduce chronic absenteeism, had a districtwide absenteeism rate of 36%.)
Battle Born Academy is another school investing in a shuttle. The school is using some of its money to purchase a “positive attendance van” – a shuttle staff will use for home visits and other early interventions. The school’s chronic absenteeism rate for the 2022-23 school year was 27%, according to its funding application.
Beacon Academy, which enrolls credit-deficient students at risk of not graduating from high school, received nearly $150,000 to purchase RTC of Southern Nevada bus passes for students who live more than two miles away from their two campuses.
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