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Mark 

Daniel

BLOOMINGTON — Bus rides of more than an hour long could become the norm for students at one McLean County school district.

"Our longest route now is about an hour,” said Andrew Wise, superintendent at Stanford-based Olympia schools. "People need to know (exceeding that) is a possibility if the state doesn’t start funding transportation."

At 377 square miles, Olympia is one of Illinois' largest districts by land size, spanning five counties and nine communities. Yet transportation, one of its greatest needs, is $500,000 in the red this year, with $875,000 in reserves.

“We’re at the maximum available to levy (from property taxes) for the transportation fund,” Wise said. “The other way we fund it is the state.”

The story is the same at Bloomington-Normal districts, which cover smaller areas but carry a lot more students.

Normal-based McLean County Unit 5 spans 214 miles with 153 buses — nearly five times as many as Olympia's 31 — thanks to an enrollment that is nearly 10 times as large.

The district will lose $2 million this year transporting its 13,500 students, though that includes a $1.2 million audit correction that predates the current administration and will expire after the 2016 budget.

That leaves Unit 5 with a deficit, or indefinite funding shortage, of $800,000. Its reserves stand at $2 million.

"There's only one way to reduce that cost, and that's reducing the number of buses," Superintendent Mark Daniel said recently. "We need to fix this."

Daniel said he's unsure how many of the district's 133 routes may be reduced. He's waiting on data from First Student Inc., the Cincinnati company that operates all 153 Unit 5 buses and owns 34 of them under a three-year, $7.6 million contract signed this summer.

First Student has proved both a resource and a problem since Unit 5 contracted with the company in 2012: the district saves money by outsourcing bus services, but it's paying First Student extra to bring in drivers and monitors from outside the county to cover understaffed Unit 5 routes.

Unit 5 also has experienced poor communication and chronically late buses with First Student.

"If they could hire enough people, 90 percent of our problems would go away," said Dayna Brown, Unit 5's director of communication and community relations.

Wise and Barry Reilly, superintendent at Bloomington's District 87, said their districts have no issues attracting bus employees. Olympia employs its drivers and monitors, and District 87 operates only about 40 buses.

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Reilly said District 87, which covers about 10 square miles, isn't subject to the same transportation challenges as Unit 5 and Olympia, but the number of low-income students in the district makes cutting routes problematic.

"It would be very difficult for a number of our families to provide that transportation on their own," he said.

District 87 is in the second year of a $7 million, three-year contract with Joliet-based Illinois Central School Bus. Reilly said the district has had no issues with their service.

He's concerned, however, about the transportation fund's $320,000 deficit for fiscal year 2016 and about $1.9 million in reserves. Those reserves are relatively high because District 87, unlike Unit 5 and Olympia, has spare cash in other funds to plug gaps in transportation.

Nonetheless, Reilly said securing state funding is a necessity to keep District 87's buses running as well.

"We'll continue to work with our state representatives to fully fund transportation, and everything, for that matter," he said.

Wise said districts across the state are "doing what we can to reduce our expenses, but there reaches a point in time kids will have to be on buses longer or parents will have to start driving their own kids to school."

"No one wants to hear that, and certainly we're not advocating for that, but if the state doesn’t pay their portion, we don’t have a lot of other options,” he said.

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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