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What you need to know about Bellingham Schools’ bus levy

A car slows down as it approaches a stopped school bus near Brownsville Drive and Hillsdale Road in Bellingham in January 2016. Bellingham Public Schools will add a levy to the November ballot to replace much of its bus fleet.
A car slows down as it approaches a stopped school bus near Brownsville Drive and Hillsdale Road in Bellingham in January 2016. Bellingham Public Schools will add a levy to the November ballot to replace much of its bus fleet. eabell@bhamherald.com

The school district here will add a levy to the November ballot to fund a $4 million overhaul of its bus system.

The levy is the latest addition to an already crowded ballot for many Bellingham School District voters. In addition to the presidential election and a slew of local races, a countywide levy will ask voters to help fund Emergency Medical Services. Another will ask Bellingham voters to pay $32 million over seven years for parks and trails.

The school district’s board made the decision to add the bus levy at a June 23 meeting, said Superintendent Greg Baker.

Baker and district spokeswoman Jacqueline Brawley answered some key questions about the proposed levy.

Just like a car, at some point, it’s costing more to maintain the vehicle with repairs.

Greg Baker, Bellingham school superintendent

How much will the levy cost taxpayers, and how much will it provide the district?

The levy’s rate will be 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2017, and will go up by a cent the next year. Homeowners whose houses are valued at $300,000 would end up paying about $54 a year for the levy’s first year.

It would give the schools $4.4 million, evenly split over two years. If the levy passes, the district doesn’t anticipate needing to ask for funding for its school buses for “many years to come,” Brawley said.

How many school district levies will voters be paying for if the bus levy passes?

Voters in February 2016 approved replacement operations and technology levies that will take effect in 2017. A facilities bond approved in 2013 is expected to be in effect until 2038.

What’s the reasoning behind the school bus levy? Does it have to do with upcoming changes to schools’ scheduling?

The new start and end times for elementary and high school students — which the district announced in March — would require more buses to meet the daily demand to get kids to school. The district’s buses currently take about 3,600 students to school in the morning, and about the same number home every afternoon. Those numbers also include a rising demand in rides for homeless students and those with special-education needs.

But the district’s fleet is also aging. Out of its 69 school buses, about 30 have logged more than 200,000 miles. The district would be able to replace 22 of its oldest buses with new ones if the levy passes.

“Just like a car, at some point, it’s costing more to maintain the vehicle with repairs,” Baker said, adding that the state will only cover a bus’s maintenance for the first 13 years of its life.

The new buses would come with newer technology allowing students to swipe a card when they board and get off the bus, and with a GPS system that tracks where each bus is in its route. The system would allow parents to call the district and find out where their child’s bus is, or which stop they got off at.

The newer buses also come with computer-controlled engines that optimize fuel efficiency, so they’re friendlier to the environment.

What changes would be needed if the levy doesn’t pass?

The start and end times could still happen without newer buses, but the district would have to cut back in other areas. That might mean fewer field trips, or revoking service for students who live a certain distance from school.

Did the district consider outsourcing the buses to a private company?

The district already does that from time to time when they need more buses, and it did come up in discussion, but the idea was quickly scrapped. An outsourced transportation department would mean the district wouldn’t be able to determine the quality of service for riders, which was a major factor in rejecting the idea.

Why does this need to be decided in November, when the ballot is already crowded for some voters?

Should the levy pass, the funding would be delayed by a year, meaning it would reach the district about the same time as the schedule change.

“There’s really no perfect time to do something like this,” Baker said. “We felt in order to get these buses as soon as we could, we wanted to get it on the ballot this year.”

More information on the school bus levy is available at http://bellinghamschools.org/schoolbuslevy.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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