By Tom Doolittle
I saw the following blurb the other day in an Agora investment newsletter:
“In Texas, the Dallas suburb of Keller is about to charge parents who want to put their kids on the school bus. The charge will be $185 per semester for one child, $135 for the second.”
Add that to the plethora of news items regarding city bankruptcies, police force cuts and closed libraries while Federal support goes the way of tea in Boston’s Harbor. http://5minforecast.agorafinancial.com/crises-close-to-home
The reality of economic contraction is only beginning for public services. Sooner or later, today’s form of “austerity” will be viewed as nickel and dime operating cost reductions. When the State of Illinois pawns a toll road to an off-shore company for a garage price, that’s a distressed asset sale, not an operating cost reduction. So will suburban school systems face asset liquidation and departmental closures—particularly where people are moving out, getting older and may shun public education in droves?
DeKalb is already leasing emptied school space to charter schools, but for other reasons than revenue. How long will it be before student reductions in some areas attributable to a variety of population “dislocations” force DCSS (and the government) to look at divestiture and shrinkage for it’s very survival? Will suburban public school systems be forced to face the fact that they have bought, built and tried to maintain too much “stuff” over too wide an area—including bus transportation?
The fact is, school transit systems represent a quirky American luxury. Only in America do you have a single-user transit system that is idle twice the time it is used daily—and only used fully less than nine months per year. A nation in bankruptcy may need to give up such an entitlement. That is, particularly when alternative modes exist. Here’s something I got from a friend when I told her about the Keller decision:
“One of my friends moved to Australia for a couple of years... ALL the children ride public transportation to school there. The buses and trains are full of students in the mornings and afternoons. It works out just fine.”
School busses, like much of our government “systems” will hold until the very end because they represent an amalgam of unsustainable entitlements for all special interests involved (mostly in the private sector). All assumed unassailable in the 20th century, property tax revenue, bond financing, militarily subsidized fuel prices, the under-the-radar school bus lobby, kids deemed their own social class…get the picture? Of course, you’d say that’s what makes America “special” in its own right. True—also unique is a federal government that can print new money and have the world accept it. Unfortunately, like expense reduction, the news from DC is that the Federal Reserve may also pass into obscurity. Soooo many things will change.
You might say that a modern industrialized nation should provide transportation for primary and secondary school students. Maybe, but fundamental questions should now at least be on the table, such as: are school students’ transit needs much different than the general public’s? Consider how school bus routes would accommodate the crushing perfect storm of the end of neighborhood schooling—open transfers (some even county to county), charter schools, home schooling and subsidized private schools. Busses (and transpo departments) would be but a bellwether for school facilities in general—say bye-bye to schools in neighborhoods that residents and visitors won’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
Many might find the following scenario a tad extreme, except we already are seeing it, primarily from the newly immigrated—our growth demographic and most self-sustaining. I lived in Georgetown, Guyana for the equivalent of my 9th and 10th grade years. All students availed themselves of what was essentially “mass transportation” in the Third World. All private enterprise: bicycles, shared taxis, jitneys and walking. Consider how much these will proliferate among all populations when more of us are living more compactly (coming to a suburb near you), in expanded cities and self-financed enclaves like CIDs and horrors—subdivision homes turned to duplexes or generally housing several families. “Density” is very cost-effective for individuals and public infrastructure.
Cities will probably increase their boundaries to comprise most of a county—once again, hopefully rendering Georgia’s record-breaking number of constitutional “county units” a Sheriff’s Office formality. One can envision a urisdiction that will more resemble its rural roots than a 20th century build-out. Such a county has little demand for services. Shared city schools would become quite probable.
The clear message is that schools and government should be planning for massive “dislocation”: of how people live, where they live, how they make their money and how much money they make. The “worst case” for public agencies must be considered as likely a scenario as returning to any sense of 20th century “normalcy”. They should be wondering whether the unincorporated county areas will actually have comprehensive services at all.
Alternative(s) planning is preparation—just as in emergency management. It could make a changing order more “orderly”.