Members of statewide school board say changes to the school bus program need to begin immediately, and their urging Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ray L'Heureux to start implementing some of the recommendations made by the state auditor.
"The solution is more effective and systematic management, and that was the solution that the auditor found," said Board of Education Vice Chairman Brian De Lima.
According to a report issued Friday by State Auditor Marion Higa, the school bus program has been plagued by a lack of competition and soaring prices. Since 2006, the cost of the program has nearly tripled to more than $72 million.
L'Heureux said one of the modifications that can be made almost immediately is how contracts are awarded to companies providing bus service to students. Some of the current contracts contain a provision that pays contractors $100 per day, for up to 180 days, for any school bus that remains idle.
"Why should we expect the taxpayers of Hawaii to be saddled with an idle bus fee when we knew that there was going to be perhaps instances in time that a bus might be idle," L'Heureux asked rhetorically.
Board members also want the Department of Education to think toward the future. De Lima suggested the staggering of school start times could be a low-cost initiative to consolidate routes and bring the bus program under control.
"To me that makes reasonable man theory and common sense, and why not look at it," said L'Heureux.
Hawaii State Teachers Association president Wil Okabe said the staggering school start times would be something the union is willing to examine.
"HSTA is always willing to entertain any kind of discussion that will help gets get to school," said Okabe. "Safety is paramount, especially when you have more kids walking to school."
Before the start of the school year, more than 2,000 students lost their school bus service after state lawmakers provided only $25 million of the $42 million DOE requested for the program. The DOE was able to muster an additional $11.5 million, but those additional funds likely won't be available next year. That means the budget for school bus service may go from $36.5 million to just $25 million for the 2013-2014 school year.
"Hopefully we can deal with it with $25 million, but at the very worst, I think that we need to be able to show that we can provide as much service as we can, and show a plan over years," said BOE member Wesley Lo.
Meanwhile, the DOE has hired the consulting firm Management Partnerships Services Inc. for $109,000 to come up with recommendations on how to improve the bus program for students.
The company expects to issue a draft report by the end of October, with the final report due November 15.
"The scope is pretty wide, and it's going to look at the transportation requirements as a whole," said L'Heureux.