One definition of sharing is to be unselfish and think of others first or it can mean using something jointly with others. Perhaps both definitions apply when describing shared services to provide more effective, efficient transportation services.
The principle of economies of scale might also apply, especially when thinking back many years ago, to when children in rural areas walked to a one-room school- house. School buses and consolidation of those many schools greatly expanded learning opportunities while also reducing educational costs per student.
Schools are under more intense pressure than ever before to reduce costs, while offering ever-increasing services to students and trying to maintain a balanced budget. Some rural districts have merged into one larger district. In other places, schools have collaborated and combined payroll, food services, information technology, or human resources into one department serving multi- ple districts. Combining these non-instructional services not only adds buying power through bulk purchases but serves many districts with fewer staff, which makes more sense than each district having its own offices.
New York BOCES Systems
Since 1948, when the New York State legislature developed Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), students across the state have been learning career skills in many areas, from animal science to welding. BOCES students from surrounding districts are bused in for morning or afternoon programs and the rest of the day is spent in classes at their regular school. But that isn’t all. The 37 BOCES schools now in operation statewide also provide municipalities and school districts with cost effective services, including adult education, exceptional children’s services, centralized payroll departments, commercial driver training, and in some cases centralized maintenance operations for buses. The BOCES staff focuses on improving pupil performance by paying attention to their local district’s initiatives.
In Ithaca, New York, the Tompkins- Seneca- Tioga BOCES educates students from three counties. Shared services include coordination of the automatic substitute teacher program, tax collection, printing services, and employee benefits, to name just a few. The BOCES also helps surrounding districts train bus drivers.
“I’m happy that trades and other skilled professions that don’t require a college education are in vogue again,” said Jeffrey Matteson, district superintendent and chief operating officer. “Our transportation specialist, Donna Boyce, works closely with districts, even outside our area, on training, and she is a real advocate for transportation. She’s continued to build the driver education program, going above and beyond what we expected.
Donna is on the cutting edge of changing the transportation industry. She’s in close contact with all of our school’s transportation directors about what they need for their drivers. Right now, she’s searching for resources for additional training and for electric vehicle grants and is also involved with the infrastructure planning.”
On April 8, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul approved a budget that includes an aggressive plan to require all school buses be powered by all-electric batteries by 2035. Less than two weeks later, BOCES along with the Lion Electric Company and vehicle-to-grid provider Nuvve hosted a ride and drive, giving local bus drivers, teachers, students, and school board members a sneak peek at the future of school buses.
Located east of Syracuse, meanwhile, the Madison-Oneida BOCES in Verona, New York, provides driver training and vehicle maintenance for 10 school districts plus contracts with a private bus operator to transport adults to special needs programs. Transportation Supervisor Frank Slawiak oversees a 12-bay shop.
“The Oneida City School District built this facility but with us in mind,” Slawiak explained. “We lease it from them. A warm, well-lit facility helps us retain technicians.” Of the member districts, one has its own maintenance facility. But Clinton Central is also benefitting from bus maintenance services despite not belonging to the BOCES.
“They were contracting out the work on the 28 buses in their fleet to a regular garage,” Slawiak said. “Their board agreed to see if we could save them any money, and they saved $100,000 the first year by having us service their fleet.” The system is very flexible between individual districts. BOCES bills for hours and marks up parts like any private vehicle repair shop would. However, the BOCES rate is $59 per hour, compared to $130 to $140-hour rate that other shops charge.
“I do a labor study every year to stay on top of prices. We have set hours for services like brake work,” Slawiak said. “There is daily communication between the districts and our garage. Some schools prefer to access our software to enter mileage, or they’ll call to discuss what they need. We’ll also service lawn mowers and other maintenance equipment.”
Commonwealth Cooperation Anthony Devlin, assistant to the superintendent for the Neshaminy School District in Pennsylvania, noted collaboration with neighboring school districts—like Pennsbury Schools which transports some students to an exceptional school in Philadelphia—to develop joint bus routes. “We provide the driver and van, and they provide the aide, to get those special needs students where they need to go,” Devlin shared.
Neshaminy District also cooperates with Bensalem School District to provide transportation to a special needs program in Devlin’s home district. “I was unable to provide transportation for a little girl, so they are helping us out,” Devlin explained. “The families had developed such a great relationship with the driver, that we are keeping the same driver on the route so that family, and the student, are more comfortable.”
Normally, Devlin said he can’t guarantee the same driver, but he appreciates the peace of mind that special needs parents have knowing who is driving their child. “It can be stressful enough trusting some bus driver with your most valuable asset, your child, but imagine doing it when your child can’t speak or they can’t help themselves in other ways,” Devlin added.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education is set up so that each county is an Intermediate Unit (IU). Philadelphia is one large unit. Devlin’s school is part of Bucks County IU, which is comprised of 13 districts. The Buck’s County IU operates its own fleet in addition to contracting with outside transportation agencies, especially for special needs students.
“In a bad economy, schools have to be responsible to our tax base by curtailing costs,” said Devlin. “Staffing is about 80 percent of the cost of running most businesses, and we’ve tried to reduce that. Neshaminy’s transportation union agreed to allow a certain percentage of district transportation to be outsourced.”
Municipalities Helping School Districts:
Rosalyn Vann-Jackson is the executive director of student enrollment and operational support for the Broken Arrow Public School system near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her role also includes supervising the transportation department, which transports just under 20,000 students with a fleet of almost 200 buses that travel a total of 10,000 miles a day. “We do partner with other districts for services,” said Vann-Jackson. “One neighboring district is very similar to ours, and they have an in-house [driver training] examiner, so we don’t have to go to the DMV for our trainees to get their CDL. In Oklahoma, there are two avenues to get drivers their CDL. You either go through a third-party or the DMV. There is such a backlog at the DMV that it can take three to six months for that process.”
Broken Arrow Schools found that it was much more efficient to partner with the nearby district and its staff member. Broken Arrow pays $25 per driver to get them through the testing process, which has drastically cut down on training time.
In addition, the local municipal authority has officially declared a memorandum of understanding that if there is a flu outbreak, for example, that requires Broken Arrow to need additional staff members, for example, the city will allow its employees to help out as substitute bus drivers, nutrition workers, or even substitute teachers. Another big plus is that the city refuse workers have a four-day work week, giving them the chance to drive a school bus on Fridays.
“We’re in the process of training the city’s CDL drivers as school bus drivers right now,” said Vann-Jackson. “I’m so proud that we haven’t closed even one day during the pandemic due to transportation shortages.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the June issue of School Transportation News.