St. Paul school bus savings fall short of projections –

St. Paul school bus savings fall short of projections

By Mila Koumpilova
Updated:   12/06/2012 09:31:48 PM CST

The St. Paul Public Schools district’s tab for busing students has shrunk, but it’s only yielding a fraction of the savings officials forecast in early 2011.

In pitching a major district overhaul last year, Superintendent Valeria Silva projected $7 million to $9 million in savings over the three years of her plan’s rollout. Based on a new projection the district presented this week, St. Paul will have saved about $3.2 million on contracted busing by the end of next school year.

Officials expect costs will flatline after that, but they are still looking for ways to lower them even further. For example, the district might partner with Metro Transit to swap yellow buses for public transportation at high schools, as Minneapolis did this fall.

Leaders said the district did not meet the 2011 projection because of the economic downturn and upgrades in service, including a decision to bus elementary students who live up to a half-mile from their schools.

“We are much more focused on delivering customer service,” said Michael Baumann, the district’s deputy for schools and business operations. “The price of that is higher than we thought.”

When Silva projected the transportation savings that her Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan would bring, the district had just cut more than $1 million from the cost of contracted busing.

The district expected the plan would trigger extra savings by greatly reducing the number of magnet schools with citywide busing.

In the fall of 2011, it also launched a tiered busing system, with fewer buses transporting students over longer stretches — a move that officials said at the time would shave almost $2 million from its contractors’ tab.

But since 2011, the district’s contracted busing bill has decreased by only $1 million to about $16 million. Officials expect at least an additional $300,000 in savings next year.

The district total transportation budget, which includes contractor and district staff costs, is about $27 million, up slightly from the 2010-11 school year.

The Great Recession has played a part, Baumann said, with contractors passing higher gas prices and labor costs on to the district.

This year’s pricetag also reflects a bump in costs after the district turned over to other companies 40 percent of routes handled by its largest contractor. After that contractor offered the lowest bids on many routes last summer, the district entrusted it with a much larger chunk of its business. But service was plagued by long delays and missed routes.

St. Paul officials said they have made several decisions that improved service, at a price. Foremost is the half-mile bus service instead of the customary mile — at 12 schools this year and at all district elementaries starting next fall.

The cost of next year’s expansion of the program is about $155,000. Early adopter schools have seen bumps in enrollment, officials said, though it is not clear if the new students came from inside or outside the district.

“It’s going to cost us a little bit more money,” Silva said. “But at the end of the day, it’s going to save us money.”

School board chairwoman Jean O’Connell said the district’s transportation savings are “reasonably close” to the 2011 projection.

“The good news is that we’re funneling more and more money directly to educating students,” O’Connell said.

But to Steve Subera, a parent at L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School, it seems the district used an overly optimistic projection to help sell the Strong Schools plan. In 2011, the district should have factored in the effects of the downturn, said Subera, who was among L’Etoile du Nord parents who protested the East Side school’s split into two campuses under the plan.

Officials said the district might yet see more savings: The Strong Schools plan is expected to push more students to attend school closer to home. But the officials said its full effects will take hold gradually.

The district is also considering the use of Metro Transit to bus high school students, likely no sooner than 2014. St. Paul is watching its neighbor Minneapolis, where most high schools switched to public transportation this past fall.

That change triggered an outcry from some parents. The Minnesota School Bus Operators Association decried the move, stressing yellow buses remain the safest mode of transportation for students.

But Minneapolis Schools and Metro Transit officials said the program has been a success.

According to Metro Transit, which added and modified trip times to accommodate the district, about 3,700 students use microchip passes that track ridership. Spokesman John Siqveland said save for a few incidents involving rowdy students, the transition has been smooth.

Robert Johnson, the Minneapolis director of administrative operations, said the passes allow students to get to afterschool activities, internships and jobs. In an earlier trial, they seemed to boost attendance: With public transportation, students can still to get to school if they miss a bus.

“The program has exceeded our expectations,” Johnson said.

The program cost Minneapolis $1.2 million this year.

Central and Gordon Parks high schools in the St. Paul district as well as several St. Paul charter schools already have a Metro Transit student pass program in place.St. Paul school bus savings fall short of projections –

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