BRADENTON -- After starting a firestorm -- including planned protests, petitions and confusion -- over an item that appeared, disappeared then reappeared on the school board agenda, the Manatee County School District took steps Monday to create a "win-win" with charter schools over transportation funding.
The Manatee County School Board had been set to consider ending transportation services to charter schools in an attempt to remedy district financial woes. After last week's meeting, however, the school board and five charter schools signed a memorandum of understanding giving them two more weeks to find a solution.
State law dictates the district shall cooperate in making arrangements to "ensure that transportation is not a barrier to equal access for all students residing within a reasonable distance of the charter school as determined by its charter."
Conversations with the charter schools should have started about six weeks ago, Superintendent Rick Mills told charter school officials Monday.
The district offered charter schools two cost models Monday, one based on the number of students in the charter school who use transportation, and the other based on how many miles buses travel for charter schools.
District and charter schools officials say they hope to finalize a proposal for school board consideration at its May 27 meeting.
"Whatever option I bring to the board, I believe I will get their support," Mills told the gathered group.
The district estimates it is losing about $550,000 a year providing contracted bus services to Palmetto Charter, Just for Girls Academy, Manatee School for the Arts and State College of Florida Collegiate charter schools.
Rowlett Charter, which voted last year to transition from a public school to a charter, has requested transportation services beginning in the 2014-15 school year. Representatives for Rowlett were present Monday as well.
Imagine North Charter School, Imagine Lakewood Ranch, Team Success and Oasis all provide transportation. Visible Men Academy contracts for bus service with a private company.
When calculating the fee formula for the charters, the district used $11,555,617 as the cost of transportation for the 2013-14 year. The district included transportation, vehicle maintenance and depreciation costs. The district did not include the cost for aides and attendants when creating the charter school formula.
The district transports 16,037 students a year, with buses traveling 3.292 million miles. The cost per student is $720.56 and the cost per mile is $3.50.
The district gets a $375 transportation allocation per student from the state, which covers just about half of transportation costs.
Model one for the charter schools looks at the cost per student. The formula multiplies the cost per student by the number of students. Then, the formula multiplies the transportation allocation by the number of students. That is subtracted from the total cost to find the supplemental cost for the school.
For example, Just for Girls transports 41 students at a cost of $29,543. When the allocation fee is factored in it would cost Just for Girls $14,168 to transport students under the cost-per-student formula.
The second model looks at cost per mile. The formula multiplies the cost per mile by the number of bus miles traveled for each individual charter school and multiplies that number by 180 days in the school year. Then, again, the formula multiplies the transportation allocation by the number of students. The two numbers are again subtracted to find the supplemental cost for the school.
For example, Manatee School for the Arts travels 592 miles a day for 180 days at a cost of $3.50 a mile totaling $372,960. When the allocation fee is factored in and subtracted, it would cost Manatee School for the Arts $28,710 to transport 918 students under the cost-per-mile formula.
Bill Jones, principal at Manatee School for the Arts, thanked the district for a simple formula, but questioned whether constants in the formula -- cost per mile as $3.50 and cost per students at $750 -- were what it costs the district or whether those numbers should be recalculated to be more accurate.
"The simplicity you've created of how you want to bill is helpful," he told the district officials.
The cost-per-mile formula is cheaper for MSA and the State College of Florida Collegiate charter school. Just for Girls, Palmetto and Rowlett Elementary all benefit from the cost per student formula.
The district is open to having each charter school pick an option, instead of having every school use the same model. District officials also said they are open to phasing in the costs for the charter schools over a period of two to three years.
The examination of transportation costs is a direct result of the state and federal auditors ordering the Manatee County School District to restore about $7 million in funding that it has misspent in past budgets. Prior to the audit findings, the district has predicted to have an $8.2 million fund balance by June 30, the fiscal year-end.
Restoring the money will bring the fund balance to about $1 million before the end of the year, significantly below the estimated $10.3 million the district is required to have in reserves.
Now the district is revisiting its budget to find about $9.2 million in savings to bring the reserves back up to the level required by the state, placing the transportation item on the school board agenda.
The item was discussed but tabled by the board after the district and schools signed the memorandum of understanding.
"The timing was abrupt," said Brian Flynn, Rowlett Charter School principal.
Mills apologized to the charter school officials for the timing and said the district does not anticipate having to go back to all areas of the budget to find more money.
"We'll be fine in the future," he said. "We've got to get it right."
District officials met one-on-one with charter schools Monday afternoon to discuss the best option for each school. The officials plan to come back together as a group Tuesday morning to finalize a proposal for the school board to consider.
Mills said he expects the school board to approve whatever option the district and charter schools agree upon.
"I think we're on a very fast track to get something accomplished," Jones said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.