A closer look at Gov. Jack Markell’s plan to trim public school transportation costs

A closer look at Gov. Jack Markell’s plan to trim public school transportation costs




WHAT IT IS The governor says this is how much the state could save by requiring school districts to shoulder more of their student transportation costs.






EXPLANATION In their annual hearing before the General Assembly’s budget-drafting Joint Finance Committee Feb. 16, officials from the Department of Education elaborated on a plan to save state money on pupil transportation by shifting a portion of the costs to local school districts and charter schools.

Gov. Jack Markell’s recommended fiscal year 2012 budget calls for districts to cover 10% of their bus route reimbursement costs, and adjusts down the formula used to calculate transportation payments to charter schools.

Currently, the state pays 100% of local districts’ transportation costs. Administration officials say the existing structure doesn’t give school districts any incentive to keep their busing expenses down.

Last year, the governor proposed a 75-25 transportation funding split, but lawmakers sided with school boards and administrators who said the plan would result in less funding for classroom teachers and school-based programs.

In the legislative off-season, state budget officials, Department of Education staff and local district leaders formed a school transportation task force to try to formulate new plans for cost savings.

But, when the task force failed to generate any ideas, the administration put out its own revised plan, said Secretary of Education Dr. Lillian Lowery.

“The work really never yielded anything,” she said. “Not only are we only recommending a 10% [split], it’s only in one area, in the routing of student schedules.”

Lowery said attempts to compromise with local districts on the issue have been fruitless.

 “We’re just asking with the 10% for people to work more collaboratively,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Come up with creative ways.’ They push back all the time on that.”

Kevin Carson, superintendent of the Woodbridge School District and president of the Delaware Chief School Officers Association, said districts are doing their best to contain transportation costs, and that they have worked with the state to find efficiencies.

“We simply can’t afford it, and to say we aren’t being creative, it certainly creates a hardship,” he said.

Legislators on the JFC questioned Lowery about the plan, particularly a provision that would prevent school districts from calling referenda and asking voters to approve tax increases that would cover the increased transportation costs.

Last year’s plan allowed districts to exercise such an option.

“The local school districts might consider this an unfunded mandate in a sense,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna.

Karen Thorpe, a member of the Delaware Association of School Administrators, said the plan not only prevents school boards from raising revenue, but because the Department of Education sets the rules for how much bus contractors can be paid, they have even less ability to rein in their own costs.

“In effect this transfers about $7 million to the local districts without any authority to raise local funds to support such a cost transfer,” she said. “Since districts would be required to operate under the same formulae established by the state, there is no opportunity to generate potential cost efficiencies.”

Instead of forcing districts to carry more of the load, some said the state should be looking to codify other administrative savings.

Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, praised a related plan Markell proposed that would save an estimated $500,000 by requiring districts to use GPS software the state already owns to generate the most efficient bus routes.

He also said the software could lessen the need for transportation administrators in each district.

“Almost 20 years ago we purchased our first software for pupil transportation, and we haven’t had a reduction in personnel. I think there’s an opportunity there,” he said. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t get by with, say, four [transportation administrators] in New Castle County, two in Kent, two in Sussex and, say, one for our vo-tech districts.”


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