Cost of school transportation tops in nation

Association: Making bus routes more efficient not always possible

Sunday, December 16, 2012
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— New York has the highest school transportation costs in the country, and they have been growing at a rapid pace, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government and spending reform.

Last week the CBC unveiled an interactive map that shows transportation spending in every district in the state. The data includes the total amount of money spent on transportation, the per pupil cost and the percentage of spending reimbursed by the state. In New York, the reimbursement rate for transportation ranges from 6.5 percent to 90 percent.

In the Capital Region, per pupil transportation costs vary, according to the interactive map.

On the web

To view the Citizens Budget Commission's interactive map of transportation spending in every district in the state, click HERE.

For example, the Schenectady City School District spent $7.9 million on transportation from 2010 to 2011, at a per pupil cost of about $754. The smaller Scotia-Glenville Central School District spent $1.89 million on transportation during the same period, at a per pupil cost of $690, while the Saratoga Springs City School District spent $4.1 million on transportation, at a per pupil cost of $605. The more rural Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District spent about $2 million on student transportation, at a per pupil cost of $1,005, while the Amsterdam City School District spent $3.9 million on transportation, at a per pupil cost of $1,012.

Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the CBC, said New York is an expensive state, and its transportation costs reflect that.

But she also said the state’s poorly designed formulas for determining state transportation aid, as well as unusual state transportation requirements, make the cost of transporting students to and from school higher than it should be. She noted that New York, unlike many other states, requires that transportation be provided for most private and parochial school students.

New York also transports a higher percentage of students, as many districts bus students at shorter distances from school than state regulations require. Three-quarters of the state’s students are transported to school, and upstate the figure is closer to 85 percent, according to the CBC. Only Pennsylvania and Connecticut transport a greater percentage, and nationally the average is about 60 percent.

Schools outside New York City are required to provide transportation for students in grades K-8 who live more than 2 miles from school and for students in grades 9-12 who live more than 3 miles from school, up to a maximum of 15 miles. New York schools are also required to transport students with disabilities up to 50 miles.

“We made a decision in New York that transportation was going to be part of the package,” Lynam said. “A lot of districts have expanded and extended [bus service]. But do we need to pick up everyone within a half mile of the school?”

Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York Association for Public Transportation, said his organization has some issues with the CBC report.

“Transportation is a service for the kids, and the expenses we incur isn’t something transportation creates by itself,” he said. The state has committed to a higher level of service than other states, and its costs are higher as a result. “We do things other states don’t do,” he said, noting that New York has a good safety record because the state requires more frequent inspections.

But Mannella also said the CBC report is unfair because it doesn’t recognize that transportation spending increases have slowed. Last year’s transportation spending increase was about $65 million, down from a recent peak of about $100 million.

Mannella said it isn’t always possible to make transportation more efficient.

“There comes a point when you are not going to be able to get more kids on a bus, no matter what route you use,” he said. In addition, students with disabilities sometimes require personal transportation, accompanied by a nurse. He also defended the practice of picking up kids who live within what is considered a walkable distance to school, noting that many homes are located in areas that lack sidewalks or border busy roads.

“The road I live on is a winding road with no sidewalks along a river,” Mannella said. “There’s no place to walk.”

According to the CBC, pupil transportation costs New York $2.97 billion per year, about 5.7 percent of total school funding, with state aid accounting for $1.63 billion, or 56 percent, of the cost. The remainder is funded by local school districts. In 2010, New York’s school districts spent an average of $1,100 per pupil on transportation, well above the national average of $459. Between 2001 and 2010, the cost of transportation in New York more than doubled.

“Transportation spending is taking up a bigger piece of the pie,” Lynam said. “It’s growing.”

The CBC believes that New York’s state transportation aid formulas provide too much aid to wealthy districts, and fail to provide incentives for districts to contain costs. There are six funding formulas, and districts are allowed to select the most favorable one.

“There’s less pressure on wealthy districts to contain costs because they can spend,” Lynam said. “In Long Island, the costs are higher.” Transportation costs also tend to run higher in rural areas, where the student body is more likely to be spread out and isolated, while urban districts often have more special-education students, who can be expensive to transport.

The CBC has also released a report, titled “Better Targeting New York’s Pupil Transportation Aid,” that contains two recommendations for reducing student transportation costs: Simplify the formulas, and lower the overall reimbursement rate.

If transportation aid is reduced, districts will have an incentive to find other ways to save money, such as sharing routes, coordinating special education transportation and centralizing maintenance needs and inventory, the report says.

NYAPT also has some ideas for reducing the cost of transportation. One is bell time coordination. Mannella said if schools would do a better job of coordinating their bells, perhaps it would be possible to use fewer buses within a district.

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December 16, 2012
8:09 a.m.
ronzo says...

This is just another reason why property taxes in NY are one of the highest in America. School buses from adjacent school districts passing each other transporting students to and from destinations, each with half full or fewer students, oftentimes going to common destinations. Why? Because New Yorkers insist on funding multiple school districts within a county. A perfect example - in little tiny Schenectady County, a county that can fit inside many cities, there are six school districts. There are two high schools located within a mile of each other. Buses are lined up at each school, one mile apart, with different school district names on them, taking students to destinations in close proximity. Each school district maintains a fleet of buses and a management staff that operates the transportation for that school. Duplication, replication and wasted dollars ad nauseum. And some people here are outraged with the Federal government for taxes. The Feds are in "how to tax and spend" nursery school compared to New York. Look in the mirror New Yorkers.

December 16, 2012
8:22 a.m.
justapto says...

NY will never consolidate any services as long as all the towns, villages, control groups continue status quo.
Perhaps the state needs to take control and force all the duplication in services by funding only county services for fire, police, transportation, schools, roads, etc. Then the counties can dole the money out according how they wish to spend it. County consolidation of the hundreds of special interest groups operating competing and duplicating services.

December 16, 2012
8:30 a.m.
birmy says...

Some school districts have bus drivers do other duties throughout the day when they are not driving. (Lunch monitors, Hall monitors etc.) Other districts allow the bus drivers to be in the garage when they are not driving.

December 16, 2012
10:35 a.m.
ronzo says...

justapto: The problem is who's the state? The politicians or the people? The politicians have no incentive to have their power reduced. Most state legislators start out as local politicians. So where does their allegiance lie? To themselves. Not to the betterment of running the state more efficiently for the sake of the people and the cost. They are the creators of local government largess. So why would they force counties to consolidate government and services? Unless the people forced them to. But people here are satisfied with the way it is, at least they are not willing to do anything about it. This is the only state that I have lived in that does not have consolidated county services - fire, police, schools, trash pickup, etc. And the only one that has these little town and village governments. That's why this whole concept puzzles me why people here love all this local government so much and are willing to pay so much for it.

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