The Hawaii Department of Education and its governing board are laying out an array of bandages to dress the wounds they anticipate after making severe cuts to student transportation services.

There will be no impact on elementary school children, however, if Board of Education Chair Don Horner gets his wish.

The board on Tuesday held its first meeting since the Legislature voted to provide $25 million for the school bus budget next year. Department officials were relieved the shortfall was less than expected, but they still face a $17 million hole with limited ways to fill it.

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi will be working with school officials and a third-party consultant on specific recommendations for the board to consider at a special meeting in two weeks. A whole “matrix” of options is on the table, she said.

“It’s pretty up in the air,” Matayoshi said after the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee meeting.

Echoing the sentiments of the committee chair, Wesley Lo, she said the department will look at short- and long-term solutions.

Horner said now that there is a “specific target,” he expects to have a plan approved and out to the public by the end of May.

“It’ll be a tall task,” he said before the meeting. “But the burden is where it should be, on the department and board.”

The budget hole may not be quite as big as expected for another reason too, assistant superintendent Randy Moore told the board. He anticipates a projected $1 million carryover from the bus fare revolving fund.

But that’s not to say there was an optimistic tone to the meeting. The task of maintaining school bus services while minimizing the impact on students will be more challenging this budget cycle than in recent years.

Lawmakers attached a proviso restricting the department’s ability to shuffle certain funds. Specifically, school officials won’t be able to transfer money from the what Matayoshi called the “most significant part of the budget” — the weighted student formula which is the discretionary money given to principals. The Legislature’s budget conference committee voted to put $14 million into this fund for next year.

“We can’t look under the cushion for spare coins to put into student transportation,” Moore said.

There are some 40,000 general education and 4,000 special education bus riders out of the roughly 175,000 students enrolled. The department had requested $42 million to maintain bus services for general education students. Services for special needs students and other federally mandated transportation costs an additional $28 million.

The cost of school transportation has jumped from $47 million in 2007 to some $75 million this year. Civil Beat has been investigating the soaring costs in its Taken for a Ride series. The series documented that costs climbed as bus companies abruptly quit bidding against each other.

Student board member Wai Sam Lao asked a pair of pointed questions — how to compel the contractors to negotiate a “more favorable” contract, and how to increase competition — that struck at the root of the issue.

Moore said the department “can’t compel somebody to negotiate.”

“The motivation on the part of the contractors, and I cannot speak for them, is some business at a lower price is better than no business at a higher price,” he said. “Every contractor has a different pair of shoes on and we can’t tell whose shoes have room and whose don’t.”

Elementary Students Need Not Fear

Last month, the board heard a range of specific recommendations, which included suspending many routes and increasing the distance a student has to live from school to qualify for bus service.

On Tuesday, Moore said discussions with contractors are underway to curb costs. He added that increasing revenues is not likely to be recommended and that reducing service has consequences.

Chief among those consequences are an annual $18,000 per bus cost for suspending payments to contractors and similar fees for terminating contracts, according to Moore’s presentation.

Horner questioned Moore about the DOE’s commitment to keeping elementary school service intact.

Moore reiterated that $26 million is not enough money to continue service to all the elementary schools in the state.

“We need to look at that,” Horner said. “That’s a last resort.”

“I’m not saying high school kids aren’t critical,” Horner said, “but when we prioritize we’re not going to be asking our elementary kids to be riding a public bus.”

Regarding the prioritization of which routes to cut, board member Nancy Budd said it is important to keep Kauai schools in mind and not just focus on elementary students.

“We really have no safe routes to schools,” she said. “It’s important not to just consider elementary school students but also high school students, especially if we’re having a longer distance to qualify. I think we’re going to have an absentee problem and end up with more high school students not attending school and we already have a big problem with that.”

Matayoshi said after the meeting that the department does not expect to consider shortening the school year or instructional time as part of the solution to making up the shortfall.

The superintendent said school officials will consider the state buying the buses and providing the baseyards because it may help stimulate competition in contract bidding.

“We’ll look at all the options,” Matayoshi said.

The state budget, which passed out of conference committee last week, is still subject to a final floor vote this week.

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