Lakeville district officials are discussing whether to cut busing fees and offer free transportation for students who live close to school, a move that would result in thousands in lost revenue but likely prove popular with the community.

Having passed two referendums since 2013, the district’s financial outlook is rosier now than it was in 2009 when busing fees were instituted, said Michael Baumann, the district’s finance director. So the school board instructed him to re-examine the fees.

Like many districts, Lakeville charges busing fees to students who live less than 2 miles from school. The cost is $150 per student, with a per-family cap of $450.

At the Oct. 20 meeting, Baumann proposed reducing the mileage boundary for elementary students paying the fee from 2 miles to 1 mile. The maximum family rate also would be cut to $300.

Secondary students would continue to pay $150 if they live less than 2 miles away.

If the changes were made, the district would lose $230,000 in revenue. More students probably would take the bus — Baumann estimated 1,500 — at an additional cost of $10,000, he said.

“It’s challenging for folks” to afford current fees, he said, and they aren’t viewed favorably by the community, Baumann said.

The district gets complaints about the fees from 150 to 200 parents annually, he said. Some who live just inside the 2-mile boundary grumble that they have to pay while those who live just outside it don’t. Others say it’s not safe for kids to walk so far in the winter, when it’s dark and cold.

“Those are legitimate concerns that I think are fair to express,” Baumann said.

Falon Krause is among the parents with objections. Having to pay for busing appalls her, she said, because of Minnesota’s severe weather.

“When I went to school, there was no such thing as paying to ride the bus from school,” she said.

Across the metro

State law says that schools must provide transportation for students living 2 miles or more from school, and allows districts to charge students who live closer but still want to ride. But different districts have their own guidelines.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, for instance, offers busing to elementary school students living 1 mile or more away, and secondary students living farther than 1.5 miles away. The busing fee is $250 per student.

The school board has never discussed reversing the fee since imposing it about five years ago, Superintendent Jane Berenz said. “Without additional funding, the only way to [reduce the fee] is to cut somewhere else,” said board member Joel Albright.

An analysis of 10 metro-area districts showed that more than half charge for busing, with fees ranging from $100 to $270 per student.

Parents aren’t the only ones in opposition. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has been “very vocal in the past about disliking all fees” because they present a barrier for families, said Josh Collins, spokesman for the education department.

Baumann said that Lakeville board members seem supportive of his proposal.

The district already has reduced fees for sports and activities, noted board member Jim Skelly.

“When the economy was down, people stood by the [busing] fee even if they didn’t like it,” Skelly said. Now that the district is better off financially, officials will continue to discuss what to do with that money, he said.

The board will revisit the discussion in December.