Statewide busing program delivers limited savings
The new R.I. school bus program will save Jamestown far less money than originally estimated, but the school district still hopes to offset a portion of its busing expenses by charging for the storage of five buses that will be used in the program – but not for Jamestown students.
The school district had been working with the company running the statewide program on an agreement for major repairs at the existing bus-storage site, but those negotiations are now on hold.
In the past, every bus company was free to bid on contracts with each of the 36 school districts. Some of the companies ended up serving districts at opposite ends of the state. To increase efficiency, the Dept. of Education unveiled a plan to consolidate bus routes under a state program.
The Statewide Student Transportation System will eventually incorporate every district in the state. In this, the first year of a three-year implementation plan, the SSTS will serve only the children who are bused out of their districts to private, charter, parochial or special-needs schools. The program will be administered by Kansas City, Mo.-based TransPar, and the busing will be provided by First Student.
The six districts originally selected for the first year of implementation were all in northern Rhode Island. But soon, another eight districts – including Jamestown – signed up.
Department Spokesman Elliot Krieger told the Press that last January, the department estimated that Jamestown would save $93,000 by participating in the SSTS.
But that estimate has since fallen drastically.
“Our Aug. 14th estimate shows that the Jamestown savings will be $12,750,” Krieger said. “Some of the estimates were higher because we didn’t have accurate numbers from the districts on the number of students that would participate the following year. So, as we got closer to implementation, some of the numbers changed and the statewide estimate – $1.4 million – moved downward. We still feel that’s pretty good because the program will be only one-third implemented this year.”
The savings, Krieger said, aren’t derived solely from a reconfiguration of bus routes.
“Aligning the routes for greater efficiency is part of it, but, by inviting companies to bid for one big contract – a system-wide contract – you can get a vendor for a pretty good price,” Krieger said.
He acknowledged, however, that the benefit to Jamestown “is very modest. No one is saying it’s huge.”
Asked if the Jamestown estimate fell because of a change in the estimated number of students who would need busing to out-ofdistrict schools, Krieger replied, “Partly. The January estimate of total [Jamestown] costs for student transportation [to out-of-district schools] was $178,000. Now we know that the cost is more than that.”
Jamestown Schools Superintendent Marcia Lukon told the Press that the department had said in previous discussions that Jamestown would only “break even.”
“A savings of $12,750 “is good news for us,” Lukon said. “It’s better than nothing. But it’s not good news in relation to the original range of numbers they gave us, which we were very enthusiastic about. There are districts in this state that are going to have sixfi gure savings, so I wouldn’t say that the distribution of statewide savings is even.”
Lukon added that participating in the statewide program wasn’t as simple as just signing up.
“It’s been a major commitment on our part to work with them and provide them with the data they needed,” she said. “We’ve been cooperating with them for quite some time, and, yes, we were looking to get some savings out of this effort.”
The district, however, may still find some savings by charging TransPar to park five additional buses somewhere on the island.
Last year, Jamestown had eight buses for student transportation: Five were committed to in-district runs, including the runs to North Kingstown High School. Three of the buses were committed to runs beyond the district. All eight were parked at the Lawn Avenue School courtyard, where, over time, the First Student buses damaged the blacktop.
“The area has become pretty torn up because it was never intended to bear the weight of school buses,” Lukon said, adding that negotiations on repairs to the courtyard “are on hold.”
The district was negotiating with TransPar – not First Student – because TransPar had asked if they could park additional SSTS buses at Lawn Avenue, and the district wanted to achieve some financial benefit from the program at a time when it looked like the district would only break even.
“We were close to a settlement, which was to have [TransPar] resurface the driveway and the courtyard area,” Lukon said, explaining that the settlement has been held up because of a conflict with plans to turn the courtyard into a playground – along with plans to build a bike path that would lead into the courtyard. The bike path is part of a proposed network envisioned by Rolling Agenda, a local bicycle advocacy group.
“We were expecting [TransPar] to make an investment in the community if they wanted to park five of their buses [in addition to the Jamestown school district buses] at Lawn Avenue,” Lukon said. “There should be something in it for Jamestown if we’re going to assist [the statewide program] in that way.”
Now, she added, if the parking for five more buses would be in an area where there are plans for other development, it would not be a good idea.
“Our task is to find an alternative site,” she said.