Defensive Driving

Schools are protecting stalled budgets by implementing various strategies to better manage growing busing operations.

When the students of today grow up and have children of their own, there will be no jokes about walking many miles in bare feet and through terrible weather in their school-days reminiscing. No parent, no school district would permit such a thing. Nowadays, students who live further than about one mile from school-less if their route involves crossing a busy intersection-are transported by the school district.

While many districts have found ways to offer superior service to a growing number of students with vastly diverse needs, they still have to do so within their allotted budgets. Therein lies the challenge.

"My budget this year is $2.2 million, up from $1.9 million last year. But it's never enough," says Fred Fairneny, transportation coordinator for Manchester School District, N.H., which buses about 5,500 students. "The outskirts of Manchester are growing by leaps and bounds; we're having trouble keeping up."

Sociological changes mean schools have different concerns than they once did, Fairneny and his counterparts across the country say. On-bus cameras monitor student activity to make sure discipline is maintained in many districts; others have to contend with crime from outside sources. Some deal with foster children or those from low-income families who change addresses often, but must be bused to the same school each day no matter where they reside.

Dealing with these and other factors takes its toll on budgets. Perhaps the most popular and cost-efficient strategy employed by many districts is staggering the start of school and, in turn, pick-up times throughout the district. Jim Koster, superintendent for transportation and business at Novi Community Schools, Mich., uses a four-tier program to transport between 4,100 and 4,600 students. The district-owned fleet of 18 buses makes four trips each morning and afternoon, beginning with high schools, then working down the grades.

"Various starting times make maximum use of the fleet because there is no downtime," says Koster. "There's a nearby district with the same number of students operating on a one-tier system. They spend four times what we do. This provides the biggest savings for us."

In addition to saving money, the School Board of Alachua County, Fla., staggers its schedule in an effort to get its 16,000 students to classes on time in an area that spans 900 miles and gives students a choice of schools.

"One of our biggest challenges is the size of our district," says Jack Shelton, director of transportation for Alachua County, which owns a fleet of 220 buses and uses a three-tier schedule.

Manchester, too, staggers bus pick-ups, which helps keep contracting costs down. "We pay a set fee to the contractor to use the bus for the day, then use it for multiple trips. It cuts down on the number of buses we have to pay for," says Fairneny.

For his district, leasing buses and contracting services is most economical, Fairneny says. "Dealing with upkeep of the fleet, maintenance issues, mechanics, hiring bus drivers and the like would be an astronomical expense for us compared with what we pay now. It just makes sense for us to go this route."

At the City School District of Peekskill, N.Y., which began busing 700 students last year, contracting is easier and more economical, according to John Ness, superintendent of buildings, grounds and transportation.

"There's a huge initial cost involved in establishing a fleet," he says. "And we're aware that good bus drivers are a hard commodity to come by. We weren't ready to tackle all of that."

Maintaining control But other districts that own their fleets like the control they have over everything, including who they hire, the salaries they pay and the quality of maintenance performed on buses.

"Our philosophy is that the parents and children we serve are customers we're doing business with," says Novi's Koster. "Our top priority is ensuring that we have a good and safe fleet with which to do that. By maintaining control, we can be sure there's no skimping."

To do that, the Novi district employs a regular rotation schedule, replacing a portion of its fleet every year. "It's a good and efficient system that addresses problems before they ever arise," says Koster. "Like the adage says, it's better to be penny-wise than pound-foolish. We ensure that we get the maximum life of our buses at peak performance."

Owning a transportation fleet ensures priorities are where they should be, adds Alachua's Shelton. "The number one priority of any private business-whether it's a bus company or something else-is to make a profit. Ours is the safety of our students."

Special-needs students-those who are mentally or physically challenged or require busing to special schools outside district parameters-represent the biggest challenge for transportation departments, their directors say.

"The number of special-needs students is constantly changing," says Fairneny. "Students are being evaluated and re-evaluated all the time. Their needs change and, subsequently, our numbers and routes have to change as well. There's no way to plan for such things."

Fairneny estimates his district will bus roughly 860 special-needs students this school year at a price of $4 to $7 a day, compared to the $1.09 it costs to transport a regular student. "The expense comes from the need for special buses,monitors on those buses and transport beyond our normal boundaries. Many times, it's just one student we have to send a bus out for-those are hundred-dollar days."

"We probably spend in the neighborhood of eight times what it costs us to transport a regular student on a special-needs pupil," says Shelton. "The special buses they require cost more; they all have air conditioning and chair lifts, which take up more space and cut down on the seating. Plus, these students can only spend a limited amount of time on the bus; we can't make maximum use of time."

Rising demands As is the case in other districts across the country, Shelton says the number of special-needs students in Alachua County is rising each year. "A lot of parents used to home school these children, but now they have more confidence in the public school system and our ability to safely bus them and educate them."

Many transportation directors say they try to leave some room for added special-education transport costs when planning budgets, but beyond that, planning for this segment is next to impossible. "It's always a shot in the dark," says Novi's Koster, whose district employs six buses for special-education transporting. The number of special-needs students and the places they are transported to and from often change without much-if any-notice.

There have been times, he notes, when the district has resorted to using private taxis to transport a single special-education student outside its limits. "The challenge is making it as efficient as possible to transfer a child outside of our district; sometimes it's more economical to hire a taxi than to send out a bus for one child."

Novi and nearby districts have initiated plans to work together to make the most of their combined transport fleets in such circumstances, he adds. "We're trying to strategize to make the most of our fleet county-wide and minimize costs of special-needs transportation by working together and helping one another out when we can."

Koster says that while demands from parents often can be tough to deal with, particularly in a special-needs scenario, the best thing to do is reason with them. "They feel they are entitled to the service they want because they pay taxes," he says. "But you have to make them understand that it is to their benefit that you run your operation like a business-something they can often relate to themselves-and be efficient."

The debate over whether or not to advertise on school buses as a means of generating revenue rages on.

Most states prohibit such advertising, and opponents say posting advertising on the sides of buses may cause the distraction of passing motorists who then may not recognize that a school bus has stopped, turned its flashing lights on or started to dispense students. Others, including the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), say it may be difficult or even impossible to control the types of advertising that appear, as well as expensive to defend legal challenges that may arise due to its implementation.

But proponents are asking NASDPTS and others against the idea to reconsider. In an editorial published in a recent issue of School Bus Fleet magazine, two transportation directors from Colorado explain their reasoning. "Some districts have been forced to cut costs by extending walking distances, which places children at increased risk because they must cross additional intersections and walk in undesirable areas and during extremes in weather," write Joseph Mirabella of Cherry Creek Public Schools and Reeves Smith of Colorado Springs Public Schools. "In such circumstances, is a second-grader at greater risk during her one-mile walk to school or while being transported in a properly operated and maintained school bus that displays advertising?"

While they agree that the primary issue is safety rather than easy money, the two argue that reductions in services caused by dwindling budgets may pose a greater risk than unconventional ways to boost revenue like advertising. "[Our work] involves the balancing of risk with available resources. This is addressed on a daily basis by superintendents and transportation managers," they write. Stay tuned.

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