Will Three- and Four-Year-Olds Keep Free Busing to Kindergarten?

Carrying broad and deep cuts, including almost 1,000 fewer employees, the budget proposed for Milwaukee Public Schools for next year has left at least one member of the School Board, Annie Woodward, suggesting that the board should just refuse to pass the budget. It may seem tempting to other members, but the board is nonetheless on track to approve a budget soon.

Amid all the cuts, one proposal that has attracted particularly strong opposition in public hearings: Eliminating free busing for three- and four-year-old kindergartners. Representatives of Montessori schools and the Starms Early Childhood Center have passionately argued for the importance of starting children in their programs at early ages. Busing is critical to getting the young children to school, they argue. School administrators estimate that there will be more than 2,700 three- and –four-year-olds bused next year, based on current practices.  

Board members are clearly sympathetic to keeping the busing. Two amendments to restore it will be considered at a meeting tonight. There’s one major problem: Neither of the proposals specifies where to come up with the almost $2 million to cover the tab for the young kids. The budget already calls for spending the most MPS can spend legally.

Official information on a proposed budget amendment from board members Terry Falk and Peter Blewett simply says, “$1,942,569 needs to be identified to fund this amendment.” An amendment proposed  by board member Larry Miller favors charging families for the busing, unless the children qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The proposal does not estimate how that might work and, as MPS budgeters said in their comments, “Further investigation is needed on legality of charging for transportation.”  

Overall, MPS has been trying for years to cut the amount it spends on busing. The figure hung around $60 million for quite a while, but has been dropping. For 2009-10, it was $56.8 million. The budget for this school year is $55.1 million. Including eliminating the three- and four-year-olds from busing, the proposed amount for next year is $51.3 million. That’s a little under 5% of the total MPS budget.

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