State may cut school bus funding : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|State may cut school bus funding|
|by Lyle R. Rolfe|
Providing bus service for 13,790 regular and special education students in the Oswego School District every day is big business, board members learned Monday night.
Board members received an extensive report from Angie Smith, director of business services, and Brandy Kackert, transportation coordinator, about the bus service along with suggestions of ways they may cut costs.
Smith said the buses travel 1.85 million miles each year over 799 routes mornings and afternoons, which does not include field trips. This includes 103 district buses, 171 district drivers and monitors and 65 route packages provided by outside contractors.
She provided some bad news first- state funding of transportation service for the district could be reduced by $700,000 for next school year. Along with this the district may have more flexibility in which students they must bus. Charging fees to families could also become an option, she said.
Also, the district may be able to count preschool students among those for which they receive money.
"But the clear message from the state is that they believe this is a local issue which may lead to property tax increases in the long-term," Smith said.
She said the state had been reimbursing the district for about 80 percent of its transportation costs every year through 2010. The funds always came to the district a year after they were spent.
"But a couple of summers ago, they pulled the rug out from under us. There was no advance warning so the district could not even try to cut costs. They just said, 'Hey guess what? That money you spent last year? We're not giving you as much back as you thought,'" Smith said.
She displayed a graph that showed the state funding had dropped from 80 percent to about 40 percent in one year.
The percent reimbursed for transporting special education students has stayed about the same, but the percentage of special education students is increasing rapidly, she noted.
Smith said the current state formula allows the district to depreciate buses, consider their labor costs and other expenses and the state then determines how much reimbursement to provide.
Now, however, the state is talking about a new formula based only on students and miles driven, which they say is simpler, she said. But with this formula the district could lose up to $700,000, she said.
Smith said the state knows this will not make districts happy, so they are considering changing the mandate that students living 1.5 miles or more from school must be bused.
The state also is suggesting the flexibility in who must be bused as well as possibly charging fees to ride the buses. But these suggestions would create additional problems she said.
"The bottom line to all of this is that as much as the governor wants to jump up and down and say he is cutting transportation because he wants to keep cuts away from the classroom, you know that a cut in transportation does affect the classroom because we only have so many dollars. And if you take from the Education Fund and give to the Transportation Fund, you affect the classrooms," she said.
Kackert said the district has been taking some steps to cut costs. Job descriptions have been evaluated and positions realigned and one mechanic who left has not been replaced.
Special service transportation has been brought back in house for quality control, and the district is partnering with other districts on out-of-district routes where possible, she added.
Kackert said they also have streamlined outside contractors routes to maximize package hours, saving the district tens of thousands of dollars.
She said they have made most routes triples which means each driver picks up elementary, junior high and high school students to get the most use out of their drivers.
The district also has asked drivers to perform their own bus evacuation drills, and minimize the down-time where possible on field trips by having drivers drop students off and return later to pick them up rather than sit and wait for them and get paid for it.
They have enforced timely invoicing by outside organizations they service and have created transfer hubs for student pick-up and drop-off to cut 11 routes a year. An expensive item few people know about is providing transportation for homeless students. (See separate article on next page.)
Smith went through some changes they are recommending that could save money. One is to change starting times for the schools, she said. Board members said there are many potential problems with this that would have to be worked out.
Another recommendation is tiering, which she said could save about $150,000 per year plus fuel costs. Tiering would allow them to drop five route packages with outside contractors, so they could more fully use district drivers.
Smith said they also recommend purchasing two activity buses. The district often has to charter buses in the spring for field trips because they cannot pull drivers off regular routes for them.
"We have about 20 field trips scheduled for tomorrow," Kackert said, "Seven of which they have to hire an outside firm for."
The district often pays up to $75 an hour to charter a bus. But an activity bus, holds up to 14 passengers and can be driven by a coach. These buses could be used to transport golf teams, speech teams and other groups, she said.
"The only additional cost is fuel, because we would be using a coach who is already there and we wouldn't tie up a 72-passenger bus," Smith said. She added that one bus could pay for itself in less than two years for the savings in labor and fuel costs.
A bus would be kept at each high school, but could be used by either school when necessary.
"I'm surprised we don't have some of these buses already. I'm wondering if two would be enough," Board Member Mike Scaramuzzi said. Smith said she would prepare a cost analysis on this for the board.
Another suggestion was to put GPS tracking software in each bus. It would allow them to track buses in emergencies, answer parents' questions about where their children are, help insure that drivers are sticking to their routes and help identify bad driving habits.
Smith estimated they could save $250,000 a year with an initial investment of about $100,000 for the GPS units.
She said they also are looking at hazardous areas to see if changes have been made in neighborhoods that could allow students to walk to school.
Kackert went through a list of areas where such changes are possible or could be made at minimum cost and work.
Smith said they will continue monitoring what the state is doing with the reimbursement formula to help decide what changes the district needs to make to help offset any loss from the state.
They also need to replace some buses, so they will evaluate whether leasing or owning buses is cheaper, she said. And they plan to talk to area districts to see if they can charter some of their buses at a lower cost.
They also will consider increasing the fleet to provide better service, look for cooperative opportunities with other districts, and monitor increases in transportation of special education and homeless students, Smith said.
Smith said they will refine their report with estimated savings to date as well as what they could save through other recommended changes and present this information to the board members at their Monday, April 23 meeting.