Hawaii school officials may get some help meeting a legislative mandate to cut rising bus costs by hiring a consultant to explore sustainable solutions to the state’s escalating student transportation troubles.

Enlisting outside support could also shore up the expected loss to the Department of Education due to the departure of Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of facilities and support services.

Moore, who is retiring June 29, has been the DOE’s point man on transportation issues. He has been a fixture in providing testimony before the Board of Education for the past few months. The board has looked to him for recommendations on how the district should cover a $17 million shortfall in bus services while minimizing the impact on student achievement.

Moore credits James Kauhi, student transportation services manager, for the technical knowledge. He said Kauhi will provide the continuity needed after he steps down and before his successor, yet to be named, takes over.

There’s much to be done. When lawmakers approved the state operating budget last month, they gave the DOE $25 million for home-to-school transportation costs beyond those required by law (special ed students, for instance) as long as several conditions are met.

The DOE has started working on these requirements internally, but is also soliciting bids for someone to study the student transportation program as a whole. The scope of work in the solicitation reveals some areas of overlap with legislative mandates that could help school officials provide the answers lawmakers want.

“The study has been on our radar for some time,” Moore said last week. “The fact that it’ll be done in time for our report to the Legislature is great. It serves everybody’s purpose.”

To receive money for school bus services next year, the Legislature is requiring the department to conduct a comprehensive “assessment of need” for each bus route that considers ridership rates, socioeconomic background of riders, distances from homes to schools, student safety and cost effectiveness.

School officials also have to show the routes are provided in all four counties; they are based upon need; and the Board of Education has to approve the funding.

The DOE has to prepare a report — due no later than one month before the start of the 2013 session — that documents all assessments performed and actions taken related to these conditions.

The report also has to include cost-saving measures that were implemented and changes to the methods used to procure student transportation services for fiscal year 2013, which starts July 1, as well as a comprehensive plan for bus services for the two years thereafter.

This is a tall order, but lawmakers like Rep. Marcus Oshiro who chairs the House Finance Committee, have grown increasingly frustrated with the department’s inability to rein in skyrocketing costs for bus contracts, which jumped from $47 million in 2007 to some $75 million this year.

In particular, lawmakers are concerned that the department is doing little to ensure competitive bidding among bus companies. Civil Beat’s Taken For A Ride investigative series has documented the rise in bus costs when vendors abruptly stopped bidding against each other a few years ago.

Oshiro said if it takes hiring a consultant with special skills to help the department sort through the issues, “it may be money well spent.”

“You want to try to use your incumbent personnel but perhaps we’re facing a situation, especially with this current limited pool of vendors, that we may need some specialized expertise to assist the DOE,” he said last week. “At the end of the day, the question is are we getting the most bang for our buck.”

However, it’s unclear if there would be any consequences if the DOE fails to meet all the conditions.

“There’s always a potential political consequence,” Moore said, adding that this is often “more potent” than a legal consequence.

The Legislature could, for instance, not give the department any money for school bus services again, Moore said.

“Our intent is to do as much as is realistic given the time horizon before the $25 million is committed,” he said. “There’s a fairly short window and the governor hasn’t signed the budget yet.”

Kids head back to class from summer break on July 30, leaving school officials a matter of weeks to consolidate or cut dozens of routes throughout the state.

That’s prompting the board to consider holding a special meeting sooner than July 3 as planned.

School Bus Program Study

The consultant is expected to prepare a comprehensive report by Nov. 15. The scope of work, which Moore helped draft, includes a comparison of DOE student transportation costs and services in Hawaii to similar districts on the mainland.

The study will also identify large districts that operate buses themselves, those that totally contract out services and those that do a mix of the two.

The board has talked about switching to a single statewide contract and leasing buses to the contractors as a couple options that may bring costs down. The consultant will be analyzing the pros and cons of these models and several others.

Moore said all parts of the study will be significant.

“If we knew all the answers then we wouldn’t need the study,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges the DOE faces is geography. Moore said solutions would be easier in California, for instance, where school officials could travel to neighboring districts to find cost-effective ways to provide bus services.

“We are 2,500 miles away from the next person to talk to about it,” Moore said. “We’d have a lot more confidence that we were state-of-the-art or a lot more understanding that we aren’t, but we are where we are. So we probably know less about much of what we do, not only in the DOE, than folks would in similar agencies sitting in the continental U.S.”

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

About the Author

Comments