Tough choices ahead as BOE tackles deficit in school bus funds
A Board of Education committee was briefed Tuesday about various options to address a $16 million shortfall for student bus service for the upcoming 2012-2013 school year.
Assistant Schools Superintendent Randy Moore told members of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee the three main options to address the deficit are: reduce costs, increase revenues or reduce service.
Moore indicated DOE officials were unwilling to raise the $260 fee parents pay every year for school bus service. About 44,000 kids statewide use school buses to get to and from school
"We don't recommend increasing the bus fare," he said. "It's currently pretty much at parity with the city bus youth fare, and unless and until the city bus fare goes up, we think it's appropriate to maintain parity."
The DOE was forced to explore various scenarios on how to tackle the shortfall after state lawmakers set aside $25 million for school transportation costs, or 38 percent less than the $42 million requested.
Currently, it costs about $80,000 a year to operate each of the 513 general education buses statewide. Board of Education members will have to decide if any of the 959 bus routes operated on the Big Island, Kauai, Maui County and Oahu will be consolidated or eliminated.
BOE Chairman Don Horner stated his firm opposition to the cancellation of bus routes that service elementary schools.
"I'm not saying the high school kids aren't critical, but when we prioritize we're not going to be asking our elementary kids to be riding a public bus," he said.
However, BOE member Nancy Budd pointed to the dangers of getting to school on Kauai, where kids of all ages may be forced to cross one of two main highways that circle the island.
"We just really have no safe routes to schools," said Budd. "I think it's going to be important to not just consider elementary schools, but high school students."
Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the DOE would not take a cookie cutter approach in recommending different ways to make up the multi-million dollar shortfall.
"We're going to have to do very much an evaluation of the unique circumstances for each school," she said. "That makes it more complicated, but really that's kind of the right thing to do."
Any cuts to school bus service would not impact students required who ride for free under federal law. That includes about 4,000 special needs students, and 20,000 students who receive free school lunch.
"If a student qualifies for a free lunch, they get a free bus pass," explained Moore.
If routes used by students on the free lunch program are canceled, the DOE would still be forced to provide free city bus passes. It costs the DOE about $300 annually for each city bus pass, compared with $1,000 for a single student on a school bus.
However, giving city bus passes to youngsters on the neighbor islands would prove problematic at best. Bus service on the Big Island, Kauai and Maui County is often incomplete.
"An issue I don't have an answer for," said Moore.
If contracts with school bus companies are cancelled, the savings may not be as deep as some might think. A contract provision allows companies to collect up to $18,000 for each school bus that remains idle.
"Kind of an outside number is $100 a day times 180 days, (which) is $18,000 per idle bus," said Moore.
The BOE's Finance and Infrastructure Committee requested further analysis of the options it has available to make up the budget shortfall. The committee is scheduled to receive an updated report in two weeks.
Among the many considerations the DOE must address is how the cancellation of certain routes would impact student attendance and dropout rates.
"Anytime you make it harder for kids to get to school, you have to be concerned about that," said Matayoshi.
The budget shortfall was originally pegged at $17 million, but DOE officials found an extra million in a fund that collects fares paid by parents.
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