By Sue Curry Jones
Local bus owners who contract transportation services for the Ava R-I School District have recently banded together to form a business association for their profession, to protect their livelihood. The action is the result of a recent decision by the superintendent that transportation services for the 2016-17 school year will be fulfilled through a competitive bid process. In response, bus owners and drivers have adopted a firm position to defend their income and business investment.
According to Superintendent Dr. Nancy Lawler, contracts will no longer be offered to the local men and women who currently provide transportation service to the school district. Instead, service will be solicited through a competitive bid process that seeks the lowest possible cost factor for the school.
For bus owners, the change in policy represents a potential loss of income, but more importantly, the real issue is their investment in the routes.
And perhaps, in addition, it also embodies potential losses that rank higher than monetary savings, with questions such as: How will these changes effect the safety of students? How can bus owners recoup investments? What impact will this have on the local economy?
According to research provided by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), yellow school buses are a vital component of community, and as an economic asset, they are frequently overlooked. Even today, with a wide offering of travel venues, it is important to recognize that for many students, the very first step toward education is a safe bus ride to school.
NAPT research reports: “School bus carriers operate the largest mass transportation fleet in the country. Each day, 480,000 yellow school buses travel the nation’s roads. Compare that to transit, with 140,000 total vehicles, 96,000 of which are buses; to the motor coach industry, with 35,000 buses; to commercial airlines, with 7,400 airplanes; and to rail, with 1,200 passenger cars. By at least that measure, the school bus system is the largest mass transportation system in the nation.”
This appears true in Ava as well, as the task of transporting students represents a large area of Douglas County, and bus drivers run routes twice-a-day, for about 174 days each school year. The task isn’t just a job – it is a commitment.
And, bus owners are an integral part of the local economy as most purchase tires, gas, parts, filters, and other items, here in Ava. Student busing is an important part of our economic make-up, and if this slice of the pie is removed, the loss will trickle through the community.
Most Ava students and graduates remember many of the drivers, as several of them are well-established, having been in operation 35-plus years. Consequently, not only do bus drivers know mom and dad, but they also know siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and more. They understand student schedules, who is riding home with a friend, or who may be going to grandma’s or Mom’s office this time –– there are a host of scenarios and no doubt the local drivers have experienced them all. With that knowledge they keep students safe, and on occasion, out of trouble.
Ava’s bus owners maintain exemplary ratings for passing state inspections. In conjunction, records also show blemish free driving records –– no wrecks, no lawsuits, and very few discipline problems. The drivers examine buses on a weekly, if not daily basis, to make certain all is well and the equipment is in order. Under contract with the school, bus owners are responsible for costs associated with bus maintenance and upkeep, taxes, fuel increases, as well as proof of insurance required by the school board, which is $1,000,000.
School administrators, however, are dealing with the financial reality of receiving fewer funds from the State of Missouri each year. This financial conundrum includes the fact Ava’s student enrollment has declined, and fewer students, equate to less money. The problem is nationwide, and in some districts outside of Missouri, where busing is not required, districts are charging parents for student transportation services.
Consequently, in addition to changing busing for the 2016-17 school year administrators are also considering other changes to student transportation. Lawler advised the school is scrutinizing reorganizing routes so drop-off and pick-up locations are consolidated, thereby eliminating routes. She also noted several bus drivers accommodate families by traveling down a private drive and picking up riders, and these “turn-around” maneuvers are likely to be abolished as well. Parents will then be responsible for getting kids to a designated pick-up spot.
Lawler said the administration’s goal is to refine services into a more efficient and auditor-approved plan as per student cost is $950.14 and expenses need to be reduced.
Busing rules are stipulated in the Missouri Revised Statues, Chapter 167, Pupils and Special Services, Section 167.231.1, which says, “Within all school districts, except metropolitan districts, the board of education shall provide transportation to and from school for all pupils living more than 3½ miles from school, and may provide transportation for all pupils….”
The state also sets bus inspection guidelines, safety requirements, and qualifiers for bus drivers. But, the balance of decision-making power is transferred to the local board of education, which decides the details of local student service, and whether or not buses are district owned or contracted. The board establishes routes, approves the list of drivers and substitutes, and sets district rules for items such as maximum ride time for students, and whether or not a school bus can travel on private property.
Funding is also dictated by state law, in Section 163.031: “a district receives funding in an amount not greater than 75% of the allowable costs of providing pupil transportation services. District cost factor is the ratio of the district’s actual costs compared to the district’s predicted costs based on an analysis of the district’s data. If the ratio is 100% or less, the district is assumed efficient. If the percentage is greater than 100% the school is inefficient.”
Ava R-I registers 116%, and administrators want to lower their factor to 104%, and that means cutting $50,000 – $100,000 from the transportation services budget which includes more than bus service, it also pays part of Dr. Lawler’s salary as transportation director and Monty Valentine’s salary as transportation coordinator.
According to Ava’s annual board report filed with the state each year, in 2014-15, contract services with local bus drivers was an annual cost of $709,255.76, and as an item in a $13,000,000 budget, the entry is an expense of .054 percent.
The bottom line in this debate is money, and money generally causes problems and differing opinions on how funds are best used. However, this conflict embodies much more, as it also includes jobs and income, student education, safety factors, convenience, the local economy, and perhaps, tradition –– a tradition that acclaims at least 77 years of service.
In conclusion, local bus owners are asking for community support, as they have served Ava R-I families for many years; in fact, several have served for generations. They understand the challenges, but most of all, they want to keep their livelihood.