If you run a transportation department at a school district, play a role in budgeting, or find yourself struggling to navigate challenges that revolve around busing as a coach, parent or teacher, then you already know getting students from Point A to Point B has gotten a lot harder – and more expensive – than it was 10 or even five years ago.
Inflation, high interest rates, a pandemic that caused some bus drivers to retire early or exit the workforce altogether and an increasingly demanding environment have combined to make what once was a difficult task seem almost impossible.
To help board members, school administrators and other stakeholders understand the stakes and overcome transportation challenges, School Leader reached out to two transportation experts: Janine Byrnes, president of the School Transportation Supervisors of New Jersey and director of the Sussex County Regional Cooperative in Hopatcong; and Joe Mondanaro, the school business administrator and board secretary at Roxbury Public Schools.
What has worked for districts in terms of easing the school bus driver shortage?
Byrnes: The shortage of bus drivers continues to be an issue in New Jersey. Districts have the advantage over contractors hiring drivers. The districts that are fully staffed pay high salaries and offer family benefits. Districts in northern New Jersey are paying upward of $40 per hour. Contractors are rolling out large sign-on incentives for new hires, $5,000 sign-on bonuses, paid time off and benefit options.
In this competitive market, the best way to bring in new drivers is to offer paid training. Looking toward retired civil service workers is a great place to start. Whether you have a certified training facility or pay to enroll a trainee, this will allow you to build your staff base over time and prepare for retirements or resignations. All boards of education will eventually need to address these questions: How much should a bus driver make hourly? Where will the funds come from? Should they make more than an educator?
Without the drivers, the students cannot get to school, which begins the supply and demand cycle of increasing the operational costs of managing an in-district transportation department.
How challenging is it for districts to transport special education students for districts, and what can be done to control costs?
Mondanaro: To start off, in comparing the full school year prior to COVID (2019) to last school year (2023), I have seen my special education transportation costs increase over 100%. For my district, that amounts to over $1 million. Right after COVID, we were receiving quotes to transport some students that were over $700 per day.
Another challenge is just trying to find a contractor that is willing to transport some of these students. These are students who are medically fragile and may require additional supports, such as a nurse and an aide. We also, at times, receive requests that a child can only be transported alone.
When you put it all together, the tuition, transportation, a nurse and other services may cost the district around $300,000. That can cripple a smaller district’s budget.
I work with the Educational Service Commission and the Sussex Cooperative. They put routes out to bid that will include students from surrounding districts who may be headed to the same school. This does help, as the districts then share in the total cost of transportation.
Byrnes: Transporting special education students is by far the largest expenditure. First and foremost, the student needs are driven by their individualized education plan. These accommodations are widespread and can include the need for medical vehicles, nurses and multiple bus aides to ensure safe transport. When students are attending out-of-district placements, the distance from home to school is another factor in rising costs.
Districts need to rely on their Coordinated Transportation Service Agencies to coordinate transportation with other local districts. Multiple students from surrounding districts attending the same out-of-district school placement can utilize the same route and pay a percentage of the transportation costs. Districts with their own transportation department and fleet can review their routing schemes to possibly transport to the out-of-district school. In addition, local districts can enter into jointure agreements to share the route costs. If these avenues are exhausted and costs continue to rise, a parent contract is a solution that provides consistency for the student and definite cost savings for the district.
It is critical that our student needs are met, and the proper supports are in place for safe transport. Business administrators along with district transportation coordinators and special services directors should work together to foster the best plan. Route coordination and looking for creative routing solutions is the only way to bring costs down.
What are the pros and cons of owning your own fleet versus relying on contracted providers?
Mondanaro: Contracted provider cons: You are at the mercy of contracted providers. You are stuck with the lowest bidder no matter what. You have very little control and have to communicate through many different layers when issues arise.
Contracted provider pros: You don’t have to train or discipline staff. They are responsible for maintaining their fleet. You are not responsible for staff management.
Own fleet/own drivers’ cons: Responsible for salary and health benefits, staff management, fleet management and fuel costs.
Own fleet/own drivers’ pros: You can control costs. You can build a relationship with your hired drivers. Many of your drivers are also residents in the community. You provide consistency to your community with the same drivers and the same routes.
As transportation costs rise, are districts opting out of providing courtesy busing for students that live closer to the school than the statutory limit for busing?
Mondanaro: Trust me, I understand budgets are shrinking and this might be necessary. However, it is extremely difficult to stop providing a service that has historically been provided. If you choose to do this, be prepared for the community to come out to your next board meeting in droves.
Byrnes: Districts that have historically provided courtesy busing (grades K-8, two miles and under, grades 9-12, two-and-a-half miles and under) from school with the exception of a hazardous route policy are definitely beginning the conversation of eliminating courtesy busing. The two main factors being rising costs and staffing difficulties. Districts are considering implementing subscription busing programs. This will allow the district to continue offering busing while passing along the entire cost or a percentage of the cost to the parents. Removing courtesy busing or beginning a parent paid subscription busing program will bring challenges from the community to the board. With rising costs, districts will need to explore this conversation and weigh the pros and cons as it will provide financial relief.
What are districts doing, if anything, to limit the costs of supplemental busing. For instance, field trip transportation, transporting athletic teams, etc.?
Byrnes: The costs of school-related activity busing continues to rise due to supply and demand. What was considered coveted extra work for drivers is now more difficult to cover. Districts with in-house fleets are forced to contract out trips and athletics because they cannot guarantee coverage of to and from school routes due to staff shortages. This drives the contractor’s cost per trip up – if they even have the ability to cover the trips.
To bring costs down, districts can transport more than one team per bus to the same location. Districts can provide one-way busing. For example, the hockey team is transported to the ice rink for games and practices, and the parents can pick their athletes up. Moving game times to a later afternoon start would also open up more bus availability. When scheduling field trips, the cost per bus is factored into the trip and passed along to the parent in the total trip cost.
There has been a lot of talk about moving back the start time of school – perhaps even requiring schools to do so – to allow students to start at a later time. Is this a good idea?
Mondanaro: I understand that the research supports this idea for students. My main concern is what does that look like for transportation? We currently are able to tier our routes, mainly due to the starting time for the high school. We transport high school students first, then our drivers are able to go back out and pick up another round or multiple rounds of students. Currently, some of our drivers transport up to 200 students in their morning run alone.
Again, we provide transportation for four other districts. A change in start times may not allow us to be able to continue providing those services. That’s a major problem revenue wise for me – and what does that look like for the districts that I can no longer provide services for?
Byrnes: When it comes to transportation, it is known that a tiered routing scheme results in efficiency. Discussion related to starting high school students later will mandate the elementary and middle school population to start earlier. Buses must run routes in tiers, utilizing the same bus for multiple schools. The district will need to review all of the school times and come to a new overall schedule. If the high school were to require a single route, the cost factor will, at a minimum, double if not triple. If the delayed start time for high school would push the athletic game start times back, that in itself would decrease the transportation cost of athletics significantly. The struggle to get athletes where they need to be at 2:30 p.m. is a daily challenge for every staff member and contractor coordinating transportation.
How can districts work together or share services to cut transportation costs? Can you give any examples?
Byrnes: Districts need to look to each other for shared service options to cut costs. Here are some examples:
District A – Operates a bus garage with certified mechanics, District B – Operates a small fleet with its own buses. District A and District B enter into a shared service agreement for vehicle service and inspections. The agreement clearly spells out labor rates and mandated quarterly inspection rates. District A reaps the benefit of offsetting the expense of maintaining the garage, and District B’s vehicles are maintained by district caliber staff.
District A – Operates a large Transportation Department. District B – Historically has contracted out its routes, but due to the contractor raising the route costs, the district is looking for alternatives. District B enters into a jointure agreement with District A. District A and District B school calendars and start times align. District A can tier the District B routes in with its existing routing scheme. District A offsets its existing route costs, and District B reaps the benefit of district-run buses transporting its students at a better rate.
District A – is a regional high school district that does not own buses. This district must bid its bus routes. District A contacts the K-8 districts that attend its high school. The three elementary districts agree they will bid the routes in a tiered bid. All four districts work with the CTSA to create bid specifications ensuring all routes get covered and the cost per route will be reduced by a minimum of half.
Problem solving together will always foster a better outcome. Now is the time to reach out to our expansive networks of transportation supervisors to find ways to share costs, allowing more funds to be allocated to educational programs. A district strong in shared-service agreements is an asset to the community.
What are your thoughts about districts using electric school buses?
Mondanaro: I understand that this will reduce our carbon footprint, however; I am not a fan of electric buses as they are today. I have attended many meetings on electric buses. My concerns are that they are costly, almost three times the price of a clean diesel bus. I also have concerns about the charging time. If we run buses for over three hours in the morning, is charging them for four hours in-between runs enough to get them on the road and through their afternoon runs? What about athletic trips and field trips? Where will they plug in? Can the power grid as it is today in Roxbury support the charging of 70 buses?
Byrnes: Electric school buses in New Jersey is a hot transportation topic. I have attended many meetings and events promoting the use of electric buses. I am aware that there are many grants available to offset the district cost. At this time, I believe there is a great deal of data collection needed to substantiate that the electric bus is, in fact, better than a clean diesel engine. The electric buses must be trialed in every region of New Jersey. We can agree they would be best suited for urban areas, with short routes that have upgraded power company grids. The longevity of the battery versus terrain and mileage distance needs to be further reviewed. The cost of a new electric school bus far exceeds that of a clean diesel. The current market value of a new clean diesel bus is $150,000 versus a new electric bus at $400,000. Even with grants offsetting a portion of the initial cost, small district budgets do not have the funds for this expense, especially with so many unknown factors.
Do you have any tips for districts trying to get the best price on school buses?
Mondanaro: I think districts need to look at a variety of things. If you have a larger fleet, try to stick with the same manufacturer, as many parts remain consistent even with different models. Look for districts that are in the process of eliminating their fleet. You don’t need a bus with zero miles when some buses are good up to 100,000 miles or more with proper maintenance.
How has the interest rate affected how school districts approach transportation … are we seeing districts delay the purchase of buses or contract instead of buying as a result of high interest rates – or has it been a nonfactor?
Byrnes: From my perspective, the interest rates are not delaying purchases. The supply and demand of the current market is challenging. Districts cannot wait to order buses, or they may not have vehicles to transport students. Districts are engaging in long- and short-term rentals from bus leasing companies while they wait to take delivery. Again, this is an unplanned expense causing negative impact on district budgets.
How do the challenges of rural and suburban districts vary – and is one better positioned than the other to navigate transportation costs and challenges?
Mondanaro: Rural district routes are much longer than suburban ones. Some rural district students may be on a bus for close to an hour. Suburban districts would have a much higher population of student walkers, unless, like here in Roxbury, our walking routes are deemed unsafe because of the lack of sidewalks.
Byrnes: Every district has its own challenges. Rural areas will have a larger footprint to cover, the route times will be longer, and there will be minimal if any walker areas. The length of the route time will impact the ability to tier the routes. In a suburban area, there is likely to be a large population of student walkers, not requiring mandated busing. Tiering routes is easier in a suburban area. Rural areas follow a trend of receiving less state aid putting additional constraints on the overall budget.
Do you have any other suggestions on how school districts can ease transportation costs or make their transportation more efficient?
Byrnes: When looking for school transportation efficiency, always consider the following:
- Transport only mandated students when possible.
- Maximize ridership capacity of every bus.
- Route with a minimum of two tiers.
- Shared services equate to cost savings.
- Work with your local CTSA to coordinate the best possible service.
- Never compromise on student safety.
Do you have any final thoughts to share?
Mondanaro: There should be grants available to districts that engage in shared services. A district like Roxbury can provide more efficient services to surrounding districts, which ultimately can lower their transportation costs and lessen the burden on the local taxpayer.
Byrnes: School transportation is complex, and we can never lose sight of the precious cargo we transport. I would encourage every district transportation supervisor to look for resources to support them in their daily role. Student Transportation Supervisors of New Jersey is there for them to learn, grow and problem solve every day.
As the director of the Sussex County Regional Cooperative, I see daily route costs coming down in bids and unanticipated quotes. There is hope on the horizon. I truly believe that we can achieve greater results when we partner with our neighboring districts, CTSAs and contractors.