Attorney: Hoover school bus fees do not violate state law

By CASSANDRA MICKENS / Associate Editor

HOOVER — Hoover Board of Education Attorney Donald Sweeney released an email statement April 21 in response to state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice’s comments that the proposed Hoover school bus fees appear to violate state law.

Bice cited Section 16-11-26 of the Alabama Code, which says, “No fees of any kind shall be collected from children attending any of the first six grades of the city schools during the school term supported by public taxation.”

The Hoover Board of Education April 17 unanimously voted to charge students a fee to ride the bus to and from school beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. The decision now awaits approval by the U.S. District Court.

The proposed fee schedule would charge students $40.75 a month, or $2.26 per day, to ride the bus. Discounted fees would apply to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, and families with more than one rider.

In his statement, Sweeney said the state law Bice cited applies only to city school systems and is titled “Incidental Fees.”

“City boards of education have no statutory obligation to provide student transportation. Student transportation is required for county students but not for students attending city school districts. For city school districts the Alabama Legislature has given city school systems the option to provide or not to provide transportation,” Sweeney’s statement reads.

“If student transportation were considered an ‘essential service’ as referenced by Dr. Bice, city school systems would be required to provide student transportation. It is not and city school systems have the right not provide student transportation or to decide what transportation services to offer.”

Sweeney said it is true that the state Board of Education has the statutory authority to prescribe rules and regulations regarding student transportation, citing section 16-27-1 of the Alabama Code. “But the state Department of Education has never elected to prescribe rules regarding fees for transportation — at least we have never found such rules or regulations. As far as we know, city school districts have the statutory option not to provide transportation, or to provide some transportation, and to decide if what transportation is provided is fee-based,” Sweeney said.  

“In this regard, fees for school-related activities have been in place for years with full knowledge of the State Department of Education. Students who elect not to use student transportation for school related activities are not charged for transportation in Hoover: whether they are elementary school or upper level students, if they don’t use the services they are not charged any fee. Students who elect not to ride the bus to school would not be charged a transportation fee— i.e. no fees would be collected from them consistent with Ala. Code 16-11-26.”

Concluding his statement, Sweeney said, “Regarding Dr. Bice’s news release, I was surprised. Hoover officials have met with Dr. Bice and his staff about our efforts to take responsible steps to address the (Hoover school board’s) financial challenges by reducing the cost burden of unfunded student transportation. We would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss Dr. Bice’s concerns if he had called Hoover Superintendent Andy Craig before his statement. We know the State Department of Education has the authority to prescribe rules and regulations regarding student transportation.  If he had called Mr. Craig, Mr. Craig would have shared with him the status of this matter and the board’s willingness to discuss how best to minimize the financial drain on the Hoover Board of Education’s educational program caused by this unfunded transportation cost. Indeed, Mr. Craig would have explained that the Board has adopted a fee matrix for ‘planning purposes only.’

“Dr. Bice indicated that he would arrange a meeting with the (Hoover school board) this week. When he asks to do so, he will find the (board) and Mr. Craig very receptive.”