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Districts finding various ways to cut cost of student transportation

| Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011

When Keystone Oaks School District officials set out to slash costs, they considered a four-day week, school consolidation and bus transportation cuts.

Teachers and principals had noticed buses arriving at school and leaving nearly empty, indicating students had other rides. During the summer, the district sent letters to all families asking if they would voluntarily give up bus transportation.

Only 35 families responded, and they said they could give up busing only on certain days of the week.

So officials extended routes to fill up the buses, cut two buses and trimmed costs.

"It was a very clear sign to us that transportation is probably not your first line of defense when trying to cut anything out of the budget," said Gwen Walker, director of fiscal services. "People aren't quite ready for that being one of the places that we look to try to control cost."

While Pennsylvania law does not require districts to offer transportation to students, districts aren't pulling the emergency brake on busing to save money. In San Francisco and San Diego, districts eliminated busing for thousands of children. Some Minnesota students living within two miles of their school pay $150 a year for bus service.

But Pennsylvania districts are finding ways to whittle their transportation budgets -- privatizing bus service, merging routes and cutting extra services.

"Statewide, districts have really been making changes, probably for the last three years, depending where they are located in the state and the economic conditions," said Selena Pittenger, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.

Some consolidated bus stops to save fuel, Pittenger said. Others eliminated midday transportation for half-day kindergarten programs or cut service for children living within "walking distance."

The state will reimburse a district for busing students who live outside a 1.5-mile radius from their elementary school or a 2-mile radius for secondary. An exception are students who live along a "hazardous" route as determined by PennDOT.

Highlands School District officials are rethinking its transportation plan after parents took issue with the number of elementary students who would have been ineligible for busing this year. Over the summer, the district realigned its elementary schools and drafted a plan that would require students within 1.5 miles of school to walk or find their own transportation.

Spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski said the district ended up adding buses to meet families' needs. The school board is working on a policy for next year that will set a shorter "walking" distance, she said.


Penn Hills and Hempfield Area saved money by scrapping their buses in favor of private contractors. Pittenger said about 90 percent of districts contract the service.

Hempfield last year signed a four-year contract with First Student for cost savings and new buses, Business Manager Jude Abraham said.

First Student bought Hempfield's buses for $1.3 million. Each year, the district will have 10 percent of its fleet replaced, which would have cost at least $500,000 annually. The district will save another $200,000 to $300,000 a year in operating costs.

In two years, Hempfield has reduced the number of bus routes from 78 to 69. Consolidating transportation of special needs students to one carrier saved $700,000.

"We've saved in transportation, but we've also saved in many areas. And that's why as we've not increased taxes, we've also increased our fund balance," to about $13 million, Abraham said.

Abraham said the district may consider eliminating after-school activity buses rather than increase student activity fees.

Kiski Area's activities buses cost the district about $87,000 a year, not including fuel.

"We did a survey, and ... we were one of very few schools that were still running activity buses, and that seemed to be one way to save costs," Superintendent John Meighan said. "It doesn't seem like it's affected our programs. Coaches that we polled reported they lost no athletes they had last year because of activity buses. We are looking at it again for the winter because you've got more safety concerns."

The district last year spent about $3.2 million on transportation, with $2.2 million reimbursed by the state. "We try to keep it pretty well managed so we don't greatly go over the reimbursement," he said.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials will evaluate the efficiency of transportation systems.

Maximizing return

William McGill, director of technical assistance, said since 2006 he's seen a shift in the types of evaluations requested. Districts used to focus on business office and human resources costs but now examine auxiliary services, including transportation, facilities and technology.

"I think that comes from the fact that districts are now recognizing that those auxiliary services they offer are a substantial amount of their budget and should be looked at closely in order to minimize the cost and maximize the revenues," McGill said.

McGill helps districts maximize riders to maximize reimbursement, which is based on the number of bus runs, the number of students per bus, the age of buses and other factors.

Norwin School District had its busing evaluated this year, said John Wilson, director of business affairs.

The district spends $3.6 million on transportation, receiving a 32 percent reimbursement. The state average is around 50 percent.

The study suggested consolidating bus runs to private schools. Under state law, a district that provides busing must transport students of private schools within a 10-mile radius of its boundaries.

Norwin was taking students to a private school 10.8 miles away. By eliminating busing to that school and consolidating runs, the district saved about $100,000, Wilson said.

In most districts, eliminating busing is not feasible.

"The area around the schools won't be able to handle the volume of school traffic two times a day. Many children won't be able to go to school because parents don't drive, or they won't be able to work it out with their jobs to get kids to and from school," said the bus association's Pittenger.

"I can't see a district who has been for decades providing pupil transportation to their students stopping that."

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