Lowering Costs by Sizing Up the School Bus Ride

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Choosing the most efficient school bus type to use, especially at the start of the new school year, can be one of the toughest decisions to make for transportation departments when attempting to trim budgets.

If you had only $10 to feed 10 people, you would probably find a restaurant where you could get the most for your money so that everyone was satisfied. For school districts, getting the most out of each of their school buses is the best way to keep costs down and services in place for students in this next school year and beyond.

Sometimes those savings come in small packages, and for Grand Prairie (Texas) Independent School District Transportation Director Phil Gurke, that small package is a Type A bus.

“Type A buses generally get better fuel mileage than a Type C, mid-size bus. Type C, mid-size buses will average 8 to 9 mpg, and a Type A bus will get 10 to 12 mpg, but your passenger capacity is usually less,” said Gurke, adding that the final decision on bus size is determined by the amount of eligible students on a certain route.

When making these determinations, Gurke noted it is open access to the district’s demographic information that makes the difficult job of routing a little easier and more efficient. This includes information for any special needs students in the district.

“Each special needs student has different requirements. For example, if a student does not require a bus that is adapted to carry a wheelchair or the student does not need close supervision, it is possible for that student to ride on a general education route,” explained Gurke.

In some districts, changes to the planning process for special needs students has reduced costs overall. In Columbus, Ind., Transportation Manager Monica Coburn has saved a considerable amount of money by placing monitors on general education buses and cutting seven special needs routes. This has been part of an ongoing effort to make sure the district’s special needs student are given the same opportunities as their non-special-needs peers, according to Coburn.

“If we have a route assigned to [a student’s] area and he attends a home school area then we will do everything we can to place him on the bus that is currently assigned to that area,” added Coburn.

The central Indiana school district has now regulated any Type A bus for athletic and activity trips, with the savings reflected by the athletic department not needing to hire another driver. Athletic seasons also have an effect on the afternoon runs, with many students staying late for practices. To reduce wasting a half-full bus, Coburn has doubled up on certain routes.

“It is just hard to know ahead of time when those days will be,” she said.

Sometimes the decisions to cut costs come before purchases are even made. Rather than retire the use of Type A buses, Washoe County (Nev.) School District Director of Transportation Rick Martin uses past experience to understand when and where the cost savings come from. Washoe was not looking to add any new Type A’s because of the smaller vehicle’s reduced seating capacity compared to larger buses, and past experience has shown that the lighter-duty chassis does not stand up to the rigorous daily use that a school bus is subject to, according to Martin.

“There may be an initial cost reduction in fuel, but you will end up paying more in repairs and replacement in the short term future,” he added.

But in rural areas, the savings multiply as the distance to and from school increases in many instances. At Lamont School District in central California, smaller routes with fewer students benefit from the use of a smaller bus.

“It depends on the areas, routing and student counts on what buses you send out,” explained Transportation Director Connie Kindig.

In these trying financial times, tough decisions are more common than ever before. Kindig said she is at the point where any more budget cuts would affect her special needs students, which has made her department the district’s last place to look for cuts. But, transportation is not untouchable. She was recently told to prepare data that shows how to realize the most savings while negatively affecting the least amount of families.

“In looking at costs, I found it costs us more to transport those 30 students who live in the severe country where the route takes an hour or longer to take them home or bring them to school. So, in cutting that route, we could save about $50,000 for the year. In that is 70 miles a day of fuel, wear and tear on the bus, drivers’ wages for four hours a day. It affects the least amount of students and families. If any choose to keep their students home because of anger at the district, they still have to transport to another district and they still have to educate their children,” said Kindig, adding that it is not a decision she wants to be forced to make.

Reprinted from the August 2011 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.