Under an administrative rule change approved by the state Board of Education on Thursday, roughly 400 students could see their eligibility for free school bus rides halted in order to save the DOE money.

The rationale is that students who otherwise weren’t eligible for free bus rides became so when their school became a participant in the Community Eligibility Provision program.

The program is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program authorized under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that serves free meals to all students at a school in low-income areas. Under Hawaii’s rules, anyone who is eligible for a free lunch gets free bus service.

CEP has expanded in Hawaii from 30 to 52 public schools. To be eligible for CEP, a school must have at least 40% of its student body qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Honolulu Hawaii School Bus Kaimuki traffic . 13 jan 2017
Up to 400 students statewide could be impacted by the action taken at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under current Hawaii administrative rules, any student who is eligible for a free school lunch is qualified to receive free bus service. The expansion of CEP, however, “inadvertently made bus service free to all students who live a qualifying distance from school and are enrolled at a participating CEP school because all students now qualify for free lunch,” a DOE memo to the board states.

In the 2017-18 school year, DOE lost approximately $116,400 as a result of the inadvertent expansion of free fares, according to the DOE.

“This action will restore most of that revenue stream,” the memo states.

The proposed rule change states that for CEP-participating schools, only those kids from families who are eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can ride the bus for free. (SNAP and free lunch income criteria is the same).

Even with the BOE’s approval, the governor must still sign off on the plan.

At the Thursday’s board meeting, member Bruce Voss expressed concern with the impact this reversal could have on needy kids who rely on bus transportation to school.

“It makes me a little uneasy because these are among our poorest communities you have here,” he said. “I understand we need to do this from a revenue standpoint but it gives me pause because some of these kids may not go to school without free bus service.”

A public notice of the hearing was published April 19 in local Hawaii publications, on the BOE website and the lieutenant governor’s website, according to the DOE memo.

Complex area superintendents were also given notice and instructed to tell their area principals, “with a request to share this information with parents and guardians,” according to the memo.

No one from the public showed up during a May 23 public hearing at the Queen Liliuokalani building,  the memo states.

“These families that are struggling to make ends meet are not going to have time to show up at Queen Liliuokalani or anywhere else,” Voss commented at the meeting.

Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent in charge of DOE facilities and school services, acknowledged that $116,000 in cost savings to the DOE is “a relatively small number.” He said as the DOE looks to “restructure our contracts with the different companies,” something like universal bus service for all students is an aspiration of his.

“My vision for this is that we don’t charge anything for buses.”

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