Ala. School District Cancels Bus Service, Igniting Controversy

The decision by a suburban Birmingham school district to eliminate its busing program has erupted into a controversy over race and class. Officials in the Hoover school district say they were forced to drop the buses because of a severe budget shortfall. Many community members believe the decision was designed to force out the growing numbers of minority and low-income students who are lowering average test scores in Hoover schools.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

For many communities around the country, the yellow school bus is the quintessential sign that school is in session. Well, one school district is taking its buses off the roads. Citing the need to cut costs, district officials in Hoover, Alabama are canceling school bus service starting one year from now.

As Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports, many in this hilly, sprawling Birmingham suburb don't believe that money is the whole story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a battle. It's very possible that we're going to lose the buses. It is feasible...

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: About a hundred people gather in a former school building. They've been organizing since last month when the school board voted to cut the busing program that serves almost half the district's 13,000 students, effective next August.

Sabrina Lewis has a ninth-grader who rides the bus. She and other parents in this 50-square-mile district were taken by surprise and they're suspicious.

SABRINA LEWIS: My first reaction was one of dismay. And I am hoping that this is not a plan to systematically weed out students who are less desirable, academically and/or economically.

CARSEN: Hoover is a mostly white upper-middle-class suburb that, like many others, is becoming more diverse. The schools are roughly 30 percent nonwhite and 25 percent on free or reduced lunch. And the buses, which nearby wealthy districts don't offer, have helped that along. Lewis points out the buses attract new residents.

LEWIS: The transportation is a big part of why people come here.

CARSEN: But superintendent Andy Craig says the school system can no longer afford it. He points to declining revenues, increasing enrollment, and a roughly $10 million yearly budget gap.

ANDY CRAIG: We've got a deficit we need to reverse in a kind of a short window with the impending capital investment that's going to be required.

CARSEN: And busing is the best way to do that?

CRAIG: Well, it's, it's one way. We've cut a lot in instruction already. We've cut administrative. We've cut our debt service.

CARSEN: Cutting the buses will disproportionately affect working and low-income families, many of whom left troubled districts like Birmingham. But as black or Latino enrollment has risen, test scores at some schools have fallen and that's caused tension. Several board members have commented on the test score drops, blaming it on students moving in after they've missed out on a, quote, "Hoover early education."

Parents have tried to have school boundaries changed to keep out some of the newcomers. That troubles mother of three, Stephanie Brumbeloe.

STEPHANIE BRUMBELOE: There's been some talk about trying to eliminate some of the apartment kids, some of the lower-income families, to try to bring up test scores. We did not put our children in school here for them to be sheltered. We want all the kids who want to live in Hoover to be a part of the schools.

CARSEN: She also questions whether the situation really warrants cutting buses to save $2.5 million a year against a $160 million budget. But board member Stephen Presley, whose son rides the bus, says cutting the program was a financial necessity and a hard decision.

STEPHEN PRESLEY: I think anytime you have change, people are going to be suspicious of it, no matter what it is. Nothing weighed in on this as far as low test scores or trying to not have certain people in our system at all. We're about educating. That's what business we're in.

CARSEN: Parent Teacher Council president, Deanna Bamman, gives the board the benefit of the doubt. She thinks the one-year delay will help families adjust and she's confident people will come together.

DEANNA BAMMAN: I feel that the people of Hoover are very helpful. Your neighbor is not going to allow your child to not have that transportation to school.

CARSEN: Despite a decades-old federal desegregation order and this latest controversy, Hoover has been a relatively diverse and peaceful place, though bus advocates fear it's approaching a tipping point of sorts. And they're organizing in the hopes they can convince the board to reverse itself, before kids and parents have to start scrambling next year.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Hoover, Alabama.

SIEGEL: That story came to us from the Southern Education Desk, a Public Radio reporting project that focuses on education in the South.

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