GRAND FORKS — Of North Dakota’s three largest cities, Grand Forks is the only one that charges families directly for school bus rides, and that won’t be changing any time soon, administrators say.

The pay-per-ride system “does catch people a bit off guard,” but the district simply doesn’t have the funds to abandon it, Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Terry Brenner said.

“The question comes up yearly, so I’m sure the School Board will be willing to revisit the conversation, look at the overall budget, look at the overall cost and do an analysis to see if it’s something we can afford or can’t afford,” he said. “And I think I know the answer to that.”

Families pay per ride for each student, meaning they’re charged for rides to and from school. This school year, school bus tickets increased from 85 cents per ride to $1. Ed Gerhardt, who recently retired as the district’s business manager, cited insufficient state funding among the reasons for the increase.

Cassie Bies, a mother of three girls who attend school in Grand Forks, said she drives her daughters to and from school each day because school buses cost too much.

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“It was actually cheaper for me to change my hours at work than it was to do the bus because the tickets are expensive if you have three kids,” she said. “It adds up pretty quick.”

Funding rides

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the district spent $1.4 million on student transportation, according to the school’s budget. For the same period, the district took in nearly $95,000 in student bus tickets and $455,649 in state aid for transportation, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.

For the 2017-19 biennium, the North Dakota Legislature appropriated $55.4 million across the state for student transportation aid, DPI spokesman Dale Wetzel said. Schools in North Dakota are not legally required to provide free student transportation, Wetzel noted.

Grand Forks’ share of state aid in fiscal year 2017-18 was the seventh largest in the state. Bismarck received the most state funding at more than $1.156 million. Fargo, which doesn’t charge families directly for school bus rides, received the second largest at $993,743.

To provide bus service at no charge to families, it would cost the Grand Forks School District anywhere from $5 million to $6 million each year, Brenner said. And reinstating the service would mean cuts to other programs, he said.

The district rolled out the pay-per-ride system in 1990 after eliminating its free bus service, according to Grand Forks Herald archives.

Bies said she would consider using school buses if the cost of bus tickets was “at least half.”

The district doesn’t offer discounts for parents with multiple kids, she noted.

However, families experiencing financial hardships can apply for “scholarships” to pay for their bus rides. The district’s pay-per-ride system came to the forefront in December when funds for the scholarships ran out, said Gerhardt, who noted the program is entirely funded by private donations.

But during his tenure with the district, Gerhardt said he heard few complaints from families about the pay-per-ride system.

“Parents have been paying for the last 30 years, and it really, until recently, has not been an issue,” he said.

‘Business as usual’

John Neal, Grand Forks manager of Dietrich Bus Service, said he’d prefer a payment system that doesn’t involve tickets.

“I’ve been trying to get away from the ticket system for a long time,” he said. “It’s a hassle collecting tickets from kids, and there’s the potential of counterfeit.”

There have been talks about trying out a different payment method, such as charging families monthly, Neal said.

“Someone has to get the ball rolling on that,” he added.

The district’s decision to charge parents for school bus rides isn’t unique in North Dakota. Smaller municipalities like Valley City also bill families directly for school bus trips. However, Valley City charges families a monthly fee instead of a per-ride fee.

Nationwide, municipalities in several other states also charge parents for school bus rides, said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

“I think a lot of other states are kind of moving in that direction,” Martin said, citing Iowa as an example of a state that’s begun implementing a similar system.

However, some states prohibit charging families for student transportation in their constitutions. North Dakota and Minnesota don’t forbid pay-per-ride school busing, though. Still, families in East Grand Forks aren’t required to purchase tickets for their children’s school bus rides.

In the meantime, Grand Forks families will continue paying for school bus tickets.

“I think it’s going to be business as usual until further notice,” Brenner said.