Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on Hawaii’s runaway school bus costs. Read other articles in the series.


Continuing to increase school bus fares and ask legislators for more money is not going to solve the problem of runaway school bus costs, Board of Education Chairman Don Horner says.

Civil Beat asked Horner to talk about what state education officials should be doing to control rapidly rising school transportation costs, serious financial issues that have been documented in Civil Beat‘s investigative series, Taken for a Ride.

Civil Beat analyzed hundreds of school transportation records going back over the last 11 years and found that bus companies abruptly stopped bidding against each other four years ago. The lack of competition has contributed to skyrocketing transportation costs. School district officials and board members have done little to keep the bus companies in check, instead raising prices for families whose kids ride the bus and shifting money from other education programs to pay contractors’ prices.

Horner and eight others were appointed to an all-new board in April by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The old board, which had been made up of elected members, was abolished by voters last year.

Horner said in a brief interview following Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting that he was well aware of rising transportation costs even in his short time on the board.

In May, just a month after Horner took over, the Legislature zeroed out the department’s transportation budget for next year — except for special education transportation — until school district officials come up with some solutions to curb the rising costs.

Transportation financing woes came up unexpectedly Tuesday when the board was presented with a 21-page memo by state budget officials. Luis Salaveria, deputy director of the Department of Budget and Finance, told board members the Abercrombie administration is considering reinstating $20 million in transportation funding.

That money would still have to be approved by the Legislature. Education and finance committee chairs have told Civil Beat they want to see real progress on curbing runaway bus costs before signing off on a new transportation budget.

“They wanted us — the Board of Education — to get busy and figure out how to stop having costs perpetually going up, and to look at better ways to manage our transportation resources,” Horner said during the board’s regular business meeting. “I’m saying as chair, we got that message and we are moving to make some adjustments there.”

The homework assignment for the Department and Board of Education: Give a detailed report on why it’s costing $72 million per year for contractors to bus 40,000 students to school, and make suggestions to lower that cost. That report to the Legislature is due next month.

The department is looking at ways to more effectively solicit bids on contracts, among other possible solutions, Horner said.

He told Civil Beat that as a business person (he’s retiring at the end of this year from First Hawaiian Bank, where he’s CEO and president), he sees the lack of competition and the rising costs as a business issue. His goal is to lower costs without reducing school bus service.

“I feel confident that if we work with the providers and ask them ‘How can we in the future help you reduce your costs?’ we’ll get some solutions,” Horner said. “I do not want to go into specifics at this point, but I would expect that by changing our behavior, we’re able to give the provider more opportunities for reducing their costs, thereby reducing costs for the department but not reducing service.”

Salaveria said the money the governor’s office may reinstate would be intended to provide service on neighbor islands.

But Horner said $20 million of a $72 million budget is not going to be enough. He noted that the district patched a $22 million hole in its transportation budget this year with military impact aid — “monies that typically would go to the classroom. That money, along with some other federal money, was used to help us subsidize a deficit, so we survived.”

Next year, the department could be $40 million short, he said.

Horner implored officials from the executive and legislative branches to sit down with board members to figure out how to bridge next year’s deficit, “because we can’t sustain that or take that money out of the classrooms.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

Comments