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The San Marcos Unified School District is implementing a long-term plan to expand student transportation services, beginning with 10 new routes in the upcoming school year. Courtesy photo/SMUSD
The San Marcos Unified School District is implementing a long-term plan to expand student transportation services, beginning with 10 new routes in the upcoming school year. Courtesy photo/SMUSD
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San Marcos Unified expands school bus services with new state funds

SAN MARCOS — The San Marcos Unified School District is using new state funding to expand school bus services to more students, beginning with those at their highest-need elementary schools this fall.

For the first time in years, the state has provided a boost in transportation funding in this year’s budget. San Marcos Unified received an extra $2.8 million to pad their existing $5 million set aside for transportation, district officials announced at a March 9 board meeting.

While districts are not required to use these additional funds to increase their transportation services, San Marcos Unified has crafted an expansion plan to add 10 new bus routes servicing students at five elementary schools starting this fall.

“Transportation has been severely underfunded for a very long time,” said Erin Garcia, assistant superintendent of business services. “Some districts have already been struggling tremendously to provide the transportation they have to do, but we’re not in that place, partly because of the size of our district and because of the spirit of the staff.”

While San Marcos Unified used to offer districtwide transportation for general education students, it was discontinued in the early 2000s due to a lack of funding. Since then, the district has provided just two general education routes for Twin Oaks Continuation school, along with several routes for students in special education programs.

Starting this fall, the district will implement the new routes serving students at La Mirada Academy, San Marcos Elementary, Joli Ann Leichtag Elementary, Paloma Elementary and Twin Oaks Elementary.

Executive Director of Transportation Michael Sawyer said he’s excited to expand services to the broader student population again. He has been an enthusiastic leader of this effort at San Marcos Unified, being an alumnus of district schools and working as a district bus driver before his current role.

“We’re super excited that we’re able to offer these 10 additional bus routes, but since we haven’t done it in so long, we don’t know how many people are going to participate. Ten routes are our best estimate, but we have the ability to flex that up and down,” Sawyer said.

District officials chose the five schools that would receive new routes by assessing various criteria, including which sites had the highest rates of low-income students and families living more than a mile from their school.

District officials hope to expand routes to the district’s middle and high schools in the future.

“We want to phase in the program, and we’re hoping to grow it over time,” Sawyer said.

Another essential part of this plan is purchasing new buses to keep the district’s fleet up to date and meet the growing demand.

According to Sawyer, San Marcos Unified was recently awarded funds to purchase 13 new electric buses and gained approval to purchase 10 new diesel buses. Some of these new purchases will replace older vehicles in the district’s 74-bus fleet — some of which Sawyer said he rode as a student.

Garcia said diesel buses are good to keep around for longer distances, while the shorter mileage capability of electric buses can more easily service daily transport.

“Part of the reason that we are going to continue buying those diesel buses is that the technology on those electric buses is new to us, and we’ve still got to do some longer, out-of-town field trips,” he said, adding that the fleet also includes alternative-fuel buses.

The district also works hard to recruit more drivers to support the new routes with yearly training sessions. However, like in most districts nationwide, a bus driver shortage poses a challenge.

Because of this, San Marcos Unified officials have implemented several incentives, including 6.5 guaranteed hours and starting hourly pay at $22, with opportunities to make up to $28.

Bus passes will be free for students with individualized learning plans, foster and homeless students, and low-income students. Officials said this includes youth who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

For all other students, passes are available at different costs depending on how frequently they plan to ride, with discounts for families with multiple kids using the bus. A pass for round-trip transportation for the whole school year will be $725 for one student, while a pack of 40 single-use passes will be $80.

Those interested in becoming a bus driver for the district can contact Transportation Coordinator Andrea Mancino at [email protected] or by calling 760-290-2654.