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Sep 23, 2014, 08:53 AM

5 Questions about School Transportation Contracting You May Have Been Too Embarrassed to Ask

It’s a scenario that plays out in cities, towns and counties across America. Anywhere there are schools and students who need daily bus transportation, there are strapped budgets and aging fleets in need of upgrading.

School administrators see an opportunity to save tens of thousands to several millions of dollars by hiring a private transportation company. But local bus drivers, oftentimes loyal and long-serving, fear losses of wages, benefits and even jobs. They raise questions about the dedication and accountability of the unfamiliar, out-of-town bus contractor. Parents become concerned about the safety and reliability of the company to whom they’ll hand off their children each morning. 

Transportation decision makers are caught in the crossfire. They have a duty to save taxpayers money, and at the same time an obligation to their employees. They’re conscientious money managers, yet they see the value to the community and its families of new buses, advanced safety training, video surveillance and better customer service.

What’s happening in school transportation contracting is important, not only to the parents of school-age children and educators, but to taxpayers and concerned citizens in all life stages. With the amount of money that’s on the line, and livelihoods often at stake, a lot of conflicting information is out there. Here then are basic answers to the most fundamental questions, written for all to easily understand.

1. What is contracting (sometimes referred to as outsourcing)?

Contracting in this context is when a school or district chooses a third party, a private company, to manage and operate all or part of its student transportation services. Transportation clearly is ancillary to the core business of educating students. Bus-related services can cover routing, driver management and fleet maintenance for buses transporting students to and from school, to athletic events and other extra-curricular activities, and field trips. Contracts also can cover special needs transportation services and even the provision of school buses.

2. What are the key factors leading to school transportation contracting decisions?

The opportunity to conserve budgets, save taxpayers money and increase the reliability of bus transportation service is the primary driving force behind school administrators’ contracting decisions. Another factor is the desire to embrace advances in school bus-related technology and to provide environmentally friendly transportation. Yet another motivator is the time and energy savings that  administrators gain from letting somebody else deal with bus-related issues such as employee absenteeism, drug and alcohol testing, background checks and other government paperwork requirements and fleet maintenance issues.

3. Why are bus drivers protesting?

Bus drivers, fearing private companies will come in and replace the workforce, assert that private contractors can’t provide the quality of service that stems from knowledge of the community and relationships with students and families that have been nurtured over the course of time.

Savvy private transportation companies recognize the value of existing drivers. They make an effort to hire them based on their dedication to a district, and knowledge of routes and even individual students. Retaining drivers enables contractors to provide a smoother transition to a new transportation system.

4. What are the leading myths and misperceptions?

One of the most common misperceptions is that contracted bus transportation operations are less safe than in-house bus services. All drivers, public and private, must meet state and federal certifications standards. Private contractors are equally required to meet driver training standards as well as the same state maintenance standards as in-house operators. Additionally, private contractor bus fleets are newer, on average, than in-house buses. Another misperception is that after the initial term of a private company’s contract, prices will increase dramatically. But pricing is governed by contract terms, and limitations on increases frequently are spelled out in original bids.

5. What is the future?

School districts throughout the United States that have contracted their transportation operations have saved millions of dollars, according to the National School Transportation Association. The industry rule of thumb is that contracting student bus service can save a school district 10-20 percent a year. Additionally, contracting continues to enable districts to replace aging buses without making a capital investment.

About 30 percent of U.S. school districts outsource bus service (notably, across the border in Canada the number is 73 percent). In Pennsylvania, 80 percent of school districts use contracted transportation services, according to Delco News Network. Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy said in a 2013 report that the number of Michigan school districts contracting for transportation services rose to 20.9 percent in 2013 from just 3.9 percent ten years earlier in 2003. Contracting Michigan school districts reported a 93 percent satisfaction rate, according to the Mackinac Center, which also studied food service and custodial service. In the words of a downstate Illinois school board official: The lower costs of transportation contracting, coming during tough times for school financing, makes it “hard to say no.”

Email us to learn more about how your district can benefit from contracted student transportation services.