In these uncertain economic times, more and more transportation officials are seeking new and innovative efficiencies. To that end, the 2012 Minnesota Legislature commissioned a research study of regional or coordinated approaches to enhance cost savings and efficiencies in student transportation statewide.
The comprehensive report was released earlier this month.
When the Department of Administration hired the Improve Group, an independent research firm in Saint Paul, officials asked them to focus on efficiencies that arose, specifically, from either collaboration between school districts or from the use of transit to supplement or replace existing student transportation.
The study found that many school districts and charter schools are already collaborating on some level, with 81 percent of traditional districts reporting the practice. Collaboration was most common for students with special needs who require specialized transportation.
"Many opportunities exist for districts to collaborate besides the direct provision of student transportation services: sharing administrative positions, routing software, safety training, maintenance and communication systems, and fuel systems are all possibilities," the report stated. "These would not necessarily reduce the number of miles driven, but they can result in decreased expenditures."
Researchers held interviews and meetings with transportation officials at school bus companies, school districts and the Minnesota Department of Education, Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety. In addition, they conducted online surveys of school districts and charter schools.
The study found that challenges vary by geography, with metro-area districts grappling with transporting homeless students across boundaries and Greater Minnesota districts dealing with large distances, long ride lengths and low student densities. Also, the latter category is more likely to offer open enrollment and transport students across boundaries, which reduces efficiencies, according to the report.
"Transit (including taxis and dial-a-ride services) gives school districts flexibility for special situations or until a permanent solution can be found for particular students ... but it is not necessarily cost-saving," the report stated.
Researchers summed up that that student transportation services can improve in both quality and efficiency with innovation, collaboration, regionalization, coordination with transit and contract negotiations. Specific recommendations include the following:
- Replace buses less frequently, and use the state bidding process for bus purchases;
- Participate in the MN Fuel Consortium Purchase Program;
- Contract with parents to provide transportation for students experiencing homelessness;
- Consolidate metro-area routes, install GPS on those buses and use routing software;
- Change bell times and/or implement a tiered system of school start and end times;
- Develop a registered rider program for students to opt into;
- Charge students for transportation if they live within 2 miles of school; and
- Utilize automated software system for requesting and coordinating use of buses for after-school activities
Meanwhile, in a white paper published last month, transportation analyst David Peterson of St. Paul Public Schools offered recommendations to school districts for increasing student participation in extra-curricular activities. Peterson concludes that encouraging participation in after-school programs is best achieved by assigning students to local neighborhood schools and by utilizing transit for secondary students who are grandfathered to attend non-local schools.