March 20th, 2018 2:13 PM
In an attempt to control spending, the District 97 Board of Education is considering significant changes to its bus service, including the possibility of eliminating bus transportation for elementary school students or making families pay for the service. The changes would not apply to special education bus routes.
During a March 13 regular meeting, board members took up a staff recommendation to consider a series of options that district officials estimate could result in more than $200,000 a year in cost savings. That's money, district officials argue, that could be redirected to better uses or added to the fund balance.
Currently, the district transports 535 elementary and 493 middle school students each day on 14 buses, although the daily count varies depending on the weather, according to officials. The students qualify for the service because they either live near any of 14 crossings that were deemed hazardous 20 years ago or live more than 1.5 miles from their schools — a distance set by the state.
The district also transports students who may not be signed up for the service if there's space available on the buses.
According to Alicia Evans, the district's outgoing assistant superintendent for finance and operations, the district has spent $2 million over the last four years on regular bus service. Throughout that time, the district has contracted with Bellwood-based Lakeview Bus Company.
This year, cost of the service increased by nearly 30 percent, going from $405,315 in 2017 to $522,386 in 2018. In each of the two years prior to 2017, the costs averaged $537,141.
According to Edulog Consulting, an education transportation consulting firm that the board tapped to conduct a transportation audit, those costs could be reduced by at least half if the district eliminated elementary school buses.
The reduction would not be unique. Neither District 90 in River Forest and nor Oak Park and River Forest High School provide bus service for students.
Busing for elementary school students is primarily the result of 14 hazardous crossings throughout Oak Park, which the district established in 1997.
According to Edulog's analysis, those hazardous crossings have since been retrofitted with signal lights and clearly marked pedestrian walkways, and should no longer be considered hazardous.
"Without these hazards, no elementary school students would qualify for busing," according to the Edulog audit. Some middle-school students, however, would still qualify for bus service due to living more than 1.5 miles from their schools.
Edulog estimated that if the district eliminated elementary busing, but maintained eight buses for middle-school students while adjusting bell times, it would shave $224,000 off the roughly $522,000 it currently pays on transportation.
If the district also adjusted the middle-school boundaries, in addition to changing bell times, it could save $298,000 and would only need six buses for transporting middle-school students.
The idea of adjusting middle-school bell times was met with some confusion by D97 Supt. Carol Kelley, who wasn't immediately sold on the measure.
Evans added that if the district decided to continue busing elementary students, it should consider charging families for the service.
On March 13, board members said they would actively consider Evans' recommendations, although they conceded they're working under the gun. The district's contract with Lakeview expires in June, so the board decided to start the bidding process on a new contract for the 2018-19 school year.
Completed bids should come before the board for approval next month. Board members grappled with how they would communicate their plans to the public, with Evans noting that she's already been contacted by frustrated parents who have gotten wind of the possible cuts.
"I think we need to engage [the community] in the process and why this is the right thing to do," said board member Rupa Datta. "We need to explain why this is the right thing to do."
Evans said exploring the possible changes in transportation funding is part of a much larger effort by the district to exert more discipline in its spending practices.
"If the decision is that we'll spend $500,000 in transportation this year, then it is what it is," she said, "but next year, people should understand that we're going to move forward with some changes."
The school board could make a final decision about its transportation plan late next month after they've seen bids from different bus companies.