Photo courtesy of Hoover City Schools
Hoover school buses are scheduled to run during the 2014-2015 school year, but much work remains before the details of how it could function will be released to the public.
During its regular December meeting, the Hoover City Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to rescind its July 15, 2013, decision to terminate bus service in 2014. HCS Media Relations representative Jason Gaston said the Board will retain its buses and drivers and is working through a process to determine its options.
A release sent following the Board’s decision stated that the board is currently in discussions with the United States Department of Justice and other organizations to develop a new system that charges a fee to students who ride the bus.
“These discussions have focused primarily on potential service delivery models that would utilize district-owned buses and district employed drivers while incorporating mechanisms to reduce the negative financial effects of the underfunded nature of transportation program operations,” the statement reads.
Basically, that means the Board will attempt to offset the difference between what the State of Alabama allots the Board for transportation and what the service actually costs by charging riders a fee.
Transportation is a complex expense within the Hoover City Schools’ budget. The Alabama State Department of Education makes an annual allocation to the Board based on what the system spent on transportation the previous year. Next year, it’s scheduled to be an 80 percent reimbursement, meaning the State will pay 80 percent of what the service actually cost the school, not 80 percent of what was projected.
Gaston said that difference is projected to be approximately $1.8 million at the close of the 2013-2014 school year, with a projected increase of $2.5 million in district transportation costs by the end of the 2014-2015 school year and reach $3.2 million the year after. The annual difference is expected to continue this trend.
What residents can expect in the coming months, Gaston said, is for HCS Superintendent Andy Craig to continue these discussions in order to determine how to incorporate mechanisms, such as ridership fees. Gaston said if a fee plan were approved, the Board would then begin its exploration of what rates would be for riders. He added that detailed projections of these expenses were not expected before 2014.
Potential fee structure
Nationwide, the idea of charging bus riders is not a new concept. Some school districts have been extracting a fee for decades. Others began recently as aging bus fleets couldn’t be repaired as readily when state and federal funding declined.
Assuming Hoover’s fee were to go into effect today, the board would attempt to make up the projected difference of $1.8 million deficit by charging a fee to 6,585 riders, the daily average for the 2013-2014 school year according to Gaston. This year’s expense borne by parents in that cut-and-dry case would be approximately $273 per student.
However, things aren’t that easy. Some riders would not be charged due to income restrictions, and other factors must be considered. In its reimbursement, the State excludes the cost of providing aides on special needs buses and required nurses on others.
There is no way to accurately project the potential cost at this time.
Nationally, annual fees can be charged to riders who live beyond a specified distance from their schools, and bus service is terminated for those who live the closest. HCS might consider a similar policy.
Rider rates across the nation also vary drastically. Jeffco Public schools in Golden, Colo., and Keller Independent Schools in Tarrant, Texas, charge $150 annually to riders — less than $1 per day.
However, the urban Illinois District 225 outside Chicago charges $800 per child per year. In Hawaii, it can be even higher. A private company called Roberts Hawaii charges students in the Nanakuli and Wahiawa areas $880 a year to ride, a daily cost of nearly $5.
More cuts coming
Trisha Crain, a Hoover resident who founded the informational website alabamaschoolconnection.org, said Board members calmed residents’ nerves during the December meeting by assuring them that fees would be set at a manageable level. Charging a fee would allow the board to continue providing the service presumably without going further into debt, which is another primary concern for both Hoover parents and HCS.
However, the victory for residents of bringing buses back does little to correct the Board’s larger financial woes. A $12 million operating deficit for the coming fiscal year that includes a state-mandated 2 percent pay raise for teachers is looming, and cuts to expenditures would be necessary to prevent any State involvement in the local process.
Ridership fees may help offset some of costs associated with the district’s transportation department, but the district will still take a multi-faceted approach to deficit reduction, Gaston said.
HCS has been making attempts to manage expenditures since the recession hit in 2008 in anticipation of property value declines in the community and prorated state funding. In 2009, the Board eliminated 80 positions, doubled some bus routes and re-worked campus climate systems to reduce overall utility costs. This year, HCS outsourced some of its custodial staff, Gaston said.
“During that time when revenue streams slowed to trickle, the system was still getting an increase in student enrollment,” Gaston said.
This trend of rising enrollment is expected to continue, meaning with buses back on the table, the next step for both the Board and community would be to explore amicable solutions.
“I’m going to be more comfortable when I see a real plan to reduce the deficit because that’s really what we have to do,” Crain said. “This was an outcropping of not living within our means.”