The bright yellow school bus could be nothing but a memory if the program falls victim to our state's budget crises.
That's just one of the many tough decisions state lawmakers face when they meet in a special session later this month.
The state Office of Financial Management released a list of possible cuts to the 2012 budget that would help balance the budget, which is $2 billion in the red. That's no small chunk of change -- even in good times.
After $10 billion in cuts over the last three years, there's not much fat left in the state budget. The upcoming cuts are going to be agonizing.
At this stage in the game, ideas floated by the governor's administration are sometimes meant to create alarm, alerting lawmakers and the public to just how dire the situation is for our state's finances.
While many of her ideas to cut costs have already frayed the nerves of folks served by programs on her proposed chopping block, one idea has caught the attention of many parents across the state: eliminating funds for school bus service.
Yellow and black buses are a part of the fabric of our community. They provide a great service, especially for the elementary school set. We can all hit the panic button quickly when we think of losing school buses.
What about the little kids? What about students who live outside the range of public transit? What about families whose work schedules won't accommodate school pick-up and drop-off times?
It's a problematic proposal, of that there is no doubt. But student transportation costs the state $220 million. When you're trying to find $2 billion, that's a significant figure.
Tough decisions lie ahead for our lawmakers, and we don't envy their task. No matter what decisions they make, people will suffer.
Our state funds 67 percent of the costs of student transportation. But that's an average. The money is appropriated differently in districts across the state, with some being wholly dependent and others sharing in a significant amount of the costs.
One issue with the student transportation is whether it falls under the heading of basic education. Our state Constitution requires government to provide our children with a basic education. Some folks believe getting kids to and from school is part of that requirement. Others say the issue is not clear.
If funds for school buses are cut, the state Supreme Court is certain to be the final arbiter on that question.
Buses aren't the only possible cut for schools. Larger class sizes, shorter school years and dropping all-day kindergarten are other ideas.
What would the loss of bus service mean to us? In the Tri-Cities, we have a public transportation system that could help older students get to and from schools. It already does that in many cases.
But the transit system is not a baby-sitting service and would be an inappropriate solution for grade-schoolers. And in places like the vast North Franklin County School District, it would be impossible to get kids to and from their far-flung rural homes to the middle school and high school in Connell.
With the cuts our schools have already faced in these tough economic times, most districts have already looked at their transportation budgets and made cuts where they could. With the ever increasing price of fuel, managing transportation costs is essential.
But eliminating all state funding for student transportation isn't a viable alternative. Gov. Chris Gregoire said she won't include it in her proposed budget.
The Legislature should follow suit. In the long-run, the harm to our kids -- and the state -- would outweigh the savings.
There may be places in the state's school transportation system to trim the costs and create efficiencies. Where alternatives exist, primarily in metropolitan areas, eliminating bus service for older students might make sense.
But a one-size-fits-all approach cannot work. Our kids can't learn if they can't get to school. That sounds pretty basic to us.