School leaders say regional transportation could cut costs

Local school districts, under pressure to cut costs as they face of dwindling resources, could save millions of dollars through regionalized bus transportation, education officials said Monday.

If done right, shared bus services could reduce transportation costs for individual districts anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, with the smaller districts saving the most, leaders of the state six regional education service centers said.

Right now, buses from neighboring districts often pass each other only half full, said said Craig W. Edmondson, executive director of Area Cooperative Educational Services. “It makes no sense.”

Last school year, local school districts spent $248.4 million and the state $28.6 million to get almost 460,000 students to and from school. Edmondson and others at the meeting estimated the savings from regionalized transportation statewide could approach $30 million.

Earlier this year, the legislature created an incentive for local districts to regionalize transportation, but the regional leaders said Monday it doesn’t go far enough. That law has the state giving districts in regional transportation agreements inflated reimbursement rates for one year. For example, if the state gave $1 million to a district the year before regionalizing and that district only ended up spending $800,000 after regionalizing, that district would still get $900,000 from the state for transportation. However, that $100,000 surplus in payment from the state will only be given for one year.

“It’s just not enough to excite districts,” Douglas said, adding that districts should get to keep 100 percent of the savings each year, not half the savings just the inaugural year. “We need to ramp this up a lot more.”

Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of  Public School Superintendents, said if real money is attached to regionalization then districts may become more eager to participate and regionalization may become a reality.

“We need a really big carrot to hold out there,” agreed Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the state school board.

Even if there is a monetary incentive, the committee discussed several obstacles that remain to getting the local school boards and superintendents to launching regional transportation plans – including districts having the same calendar and similar starting and ending school times.

“There are major issue you would have to overcome,” Douglas said. “A lot of things in a community revolve around a [school’s] start time.”

Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said it seems “so senseless” for districts to have unique calendars, especially if a common calendar would allow regionalized transportation and could saving enough to keep dozens of teachers employed.

Other groups – including Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCan – also said Monday regional transportation makes sense.