Department changes transportation payments for students

SHERIDAN — Several Wyoming school districts have begun reimbursing parents who have to transport their children to bus stops for just one round trip daily rather than two after the Wyoming Department of Education removed the portion of its rules dealing with the payments over the summer.

Isolation payments are intended to reimburse parents who have to transport their students over long distances to reach a bus stop, generally in cases where road construction has made it impossible for school buses to reach the normal bus stops. Parents then have to act as the school bus, providing transportation for the students that the district would otherwise be providing if buses could access the areas, so the law allows parents to apply to their districts for reimbursement.

When WYDOE formed a committee to review its rules, the rules for districts to reimburse families were removed. Since then, some districts have argued the law allows them to cover only the mileage traveled by the student and not by the parent, in effect cutting the funds in half for parents who don’t work near their children’s schools.

WYDOE Chief of Staff Dicky Shanor said that the department’s justification for the decision supporting a reimbursement of only one round trip daily was that the subject of the law was the pupil.

On that view, since the law concerns the pupil, distances traveled by parents without the student in the car would not be reimbursed. Legislators argue the law is clear and have asked the department to review its rules, pointing out the subject of the language in question is the parents who file for reimbursement.

The language of the bill in question reads: “To receive transportation payments under this section, the parent or legal guardian of any isolated pupil eligible under this section shall file a transportation reimbursement claim with the district on a form provided by the district specifying the total round trip miles traveled each day to and from the bus stop or the school, as applicable.” The statute then states that total miles are to be multiplied by a specified rate, excluding the first two miles traveled each way.

At the Joint Education Committee meeting, lawmakers considered whether the law provided for one or two round trips and agreed that the law seemed to clearly provide for reimbursement for two round trips daily, and the committee requested that WYDOE review the law further and perhaps address the ambiguity with updated rules.

Joint Education Committee co-chair Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said he was not aware of any current plans to address the ambiguity in legislation but would consider eventually sponsoring a bill himself. Coe said the problem has been largest in his home school districts of Park County.

“The DOE had initially said that one round trip is all we’re going to reimburse; well that has to be sorted out and figured out,” Coe said.

“The Joint Education Committee asked for clarity and we made our case and they said they’d go and reevaluate the statutes directly, so that’s what we’re waiting on,” he said.

Sheridan County School District 3 Superintendent Charles Auzqui said the district currently has only one family receiving isolation payments and that there have been no issues with the process. Auzqui said the district reimburses two round trips daily and always has.

Sheridan County School District 1 Superintendent Peter Kilbride said the district has no families currently receiving isolation payments. He also said he called transportation to ask if there were any families receiving reimbursement when he saw that the issue was on the JEC agenda.

“If we did, we certainly would recognize what they’re doing, and if it was paying it twice, two round trips, we’d certainly do that,” Kilbride said.

In Sheridan County School District 2, just two families currently receive isolation payments, and the district reimburses them for two round trips daily, according to SCSD2 transportation director Shawn Stevens.

Stevens also said he was unaware with any issues regarding the payments in the district.

Since it is too late for JEC-sponsored legislation for this year, an individual lawmaker would have to sponsor a bill to make the law explicit if the WYDOE maintains its current interpretation of the law.