Missouri districts are discussing running school bus operations amid low funding levels, even as the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education asked the state legislature for increased levels of school bus funding. Their goal is to cover 75 percent of district transportation costs within five years.
Debra Clink, finance and transportation consultant for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told School Transportation News that projected funding for districts during the upcoming school year is 19 percent. The Revised Statute of Missouri requires that 75 percent of eligible transportation expenditures be funded. This amounts to a difference of almost $200 million.
“The goal of the Missouri State Board of Education is to request full funding within five years with an increase of $39 million each year for the next five years,” she explained.
Eric Smith, transportation director for the rural Seneca R-7 School District in southwest Missouri, said he would welcome the additional state funds, since all of the money he saves goes directly back into the general fund for classroom expenditures and teacher salary. He told STN that most of the districts in his area are funded at 14 to 18 percent. He reported that his most recent reimbursement came back at 16 percent.
Smith added his district’s funding used to be at 65 percent.
“The highest funding level for Missouri’s school transportation program was in the 2008-2009 payment year with an appropriation of $167,797,613,” Clink said.
To cope with the shortages and cuts, Smith said that Seneca R-7 and other districts in his area have resorted to buying bigger school buses, fitting three students to a seat, reorganizing or cutting routes, and running buses for more years. “That’s what I have seen a lot of districts go to—fuller routes and a cut of one or two routes, because the cost of a bus and the cost of a driver is very high,” he said. “Buses got bigger, so we cut routes.”
Over the past 10 years, he said his district has moved from 64-passenger buses to 78 passengers. His district also cut three routes over the past four years, resulting in “a little bit longer ride time, and for sure three to a seat throughout the bus.”
He said the longer ride times have not received the same parent pushback as the seating arrangement. It is hard on the high schoolers and football players, Smith acknowledged, but “as long as their backs are up against the (seat) backs and they’re not hanging out in the aisle, we have to fit (them) in.”
Tiered routing is another tool utilized by Smith’s and other rural districts. One bus first operates a short run within a smaller radius, then immediately after runs a longer route servicing a wider area. This is the second year Seneca R-7 has used this system. Smith said it results in kids not being on the bus for exorbitant amounts of time, and “the district saves a lot more, because it’s one less employee and one less bus.”
Buses are also rotated so the number of miles on each bus evens out. “The cost of putting a little bit more mileage on that bus is tremendously less than operating an entire other bus,” he commented.
Special School District (SSD) in St. Louis County provides school bus services for special needs students, Early Childhood Education students, and two technical high schools. The district runs about 250 routes with about as many buses. Chief Financial Officer Kelly Alexander said the district is 18 percent funded, with the remainder being made up by local tax dollars.
“For us, we have a lot of costs, but the funding’s not there at all,” she stated. She added that she considers the state education department’s plan “wonderful, as long as they don’t take the money away from something else.”
“I think they really need to focus on education, and the key to that is getting the kids to school,” Alexander declared.
Special education routes are the most challenging to run efficiently, she said, since they require curb-to-curb service, air conditioning, and often nurses or monitors. Like Seneca R-7, SSD also uses tiered routes to save money.
Additionally, it contracts with two nearby districts to help provide special needs bus service. A student with minor needs, such as simply requiring a safety vest, can often ride along for free on a route a partner district is running to its schools. On about 40 routes, SSD pays for or provides the school bus and monitor or nurse, while the partner district provides the driver.
SSD also contracts out for one of its bus garages, while it owns the other two. Alexander said contracting for drivers and garages has its pros and cons.
An interesting twist in light of the low funding is that the state Highway Patrol found that the average age of a school bus operating in Missouri is eight years, down from last year’s average of nine years.