Hawaii Board of Education members say they expected more from a much anticipated report on how the state should fix its nearly $75 million student transportation program.

The Hawaii Department of Education has come under increasing criticism for haphazard oversight and allowing bus costs to nearly double in just a few years.

Management Partnership Services, the consultant the Department of Education paid $109,000 to do the comprehensive study, told the board Tuesday that it needs to make “bold decisions” to fundamentally change its bus service system. The Maryland firm spent two months reviewing the program, including a nine-day visit to Hawaii.

Essentially, the consultant says the district should continue to contract with private companies to provide buses and drivers. But the state needs to take a stronger role in managing the routes, including how it tracks ridership, route selection and the bidding process.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing the state as it moves forward with the consultants’ plan is the lack of critical data, even things as simple as who is getting on each bus and how often they are riding it.

Board members Brian De Lima and Jim Williams had to practically sidestep Chair Don Horner to get MPS’ Tim Ammon and Tom Platt to answer their questions about why the 63-page report — which the DOE released Friday — lacked a more specific implementation plan and cost assessment.

After trying multiple times to ask the consultants what data they needed to help them provide a more detailed analysis, De Lima threw up his hands in frustration as Horner again sidetracked the questioning. Eventually, Williams was able to get De Lima’s questions answered for him.

Part of the reason the data doesn’t exist is the department is not collecting it in any consistent format right now, Ammon said.

“I don’t mean to imply that we have no information and no data,” Platt said. “What I do want to imply is we don’t have the right information and data for you to be able to make difficult, impactful decisions on things such as bell times, which is going to impact your entire student population, not just that small portion that is riding the bus.”

Roughly 35,000 of the state’s 175,000 students take the bus to school. The department contracts with several companies that operate more than 700 routes to get these kids to class. The cost of those contracts has skyrocketed over the past seven years, jumping from $25.9 million to run 743 buses in 2005 to $65.1 million for 836 buses in 2009 before leveling out amid increased public scrutiny, according to the consultant’s study.

Assistant Superintendent Ray L’Heureux, who oversees the bus program, said the department has had the software that could potentially help it collect meaningful data but it has never been implemented.

L’Heureux said after the meeting that he didn’t know how long the district has had the software or how much it cost. But he said more investments in modern technology, such as GPS routing programs, are needed to bring the bus system up to par.

Williams and L’Heureux, who took over from Randy Moore after he retired in July, had some testy exchanges in trying to get to the bottom of the software issue and to the root of what is being done to obtain whatever data is lacking.

“You’ve had the software. It was there when you arrived. Randy Moore had it and didn’t use it. So what about it?” Williams said. “Is it any good? Are you going to implement it? What does it take to implement it? Then we’ll get to the bottom of Brian’s questions.”

“To get to both of your questions, there is not the correct data that we need to do the right assessment on ridership,” L’Heureux said. “And that’s what this is about, is assessing the ridership for those we are providing service to. I appreciate both gentlemen’s comments, but the implementation of the software is also the management of that software, which right now that’s about zero.”

MPS was “hamstrung” in doing further analysis by not having occupancy data, Ammon said. As such, the firm was reluctant to make value judgments on why the department’s costs were double those found in similar school districts on the mainland.

Hawaii is paying on average $1,756 per student and $86,520 per bus. The consultant compared this to a similar district in Maryland. Howard County pays an annual average cost of $676 per student and $76,200 per bus.

“Are the costs high? Yes, they are,” he said. “We need to figure out why.”

Platt said MPS, in its 12-year history in working with 175 clients in 27 states and provinces, had never seen costs this high.

L’Heureux in October framed Tuesday’s informational briefing by the consultants as the meeting that would unveil why the costs climbed as quick as they did. Instead, aside from Horner’s general support for the study, board members poked holes in the report and were left with more questions as to what steps need to be taken for the department to regain control of the program.

De Lima was quite concerned over how the department should make a clean break from its current contracting model, as the consultant recommended. The legal aspects have been considered, he said, but MPS didn’t account for the huge cost factor in not renewing existing contracts and possibly ending others early.

“How do you make that bold decision in the most feasible, practical way?” De Lima said. “As I read the report, I don’t see what that analysis would be.”

Platt said the absence of specific recommendations for cost savings was deliberate because the program’s problems are fundamental.

“We didn’t want to shift the focus from where it really needs to be,” he said.

Board member Keith Amemiya aired his doubts over whether MPS completed all of the analyses of different models that it was hired to do. In particular, he asked the consultant to identify where in the report were the pros and cons of contracting with a single vendor to provide student transportation services.

Platt said MPS did that analysis in the sense that it looked at every avenue for change. Identifying the lack of competition among contractors as a problem, he said the firm settled on the department’s best path forward which is keeping its current fully contracted service delivery model.

However, the scope of work required MPS specifically to do an analysis of the pros and cons of that model, as well as others.

Amemiya said he wasn’t advocating for the single-vendor model, he just wants the board to see as many options as possible.

“This report is helpful, especially the comparative data from other districts,” he said. “But I was hoping to get even more specific information. For example, giving us some plans of action and how much the cost savings would be in implementing certain plans. Also, in terms of the bid structures needing reform, we would welcome your expertise in giving us examples on specific roadmaps and forms.”

Platt said MPS provided what the board and department sought. He said there are a couple of pages in the report that speak specifically to the changes in the contract specifications that the firm recommended.

Amemiya also asked the consultant if the department had the personnel capable of implementing the recommended changes. After a pause, Platt said his question was unfair because MPS lacked the exposure with the staff to make an assessment on its capabilities.

Board member Wesley Lo grilled the consultant on the reality of the proposed timeline to implement the changes.

MPS recommended utilizing a pilot program in 2013; executing a revised competitive procurement model by 2014; and doing a phased-implementation of the revised model by 2015. The study also says the state needs to change its procurement laws and revise its bid process.

“How fast do you think we’re going to change Hawaii Revised Statutes?” Lo said. “If anyone thinks we’re going to change it in one year, they’re amazing people.”

He said the department would have to introduce the legislation — there isn’t even a draft bill at this point — within the next month to have a chance of it being passed next session, which starts Jan. 16. The reality is this won’t happen, which means another year’s delay in addressing a big part of the problem.

Platt said he understands there are real-world constraints, but MPS believed it would be doing the district a disservice to build those constraints into the solution.

Lo said the board will look for some “quick wins” in the report that can be implemented soon. Lo chairs the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee that will be following up on the issue on a monthly basis, starting Jan. 8 with a report from L’Heureux on the next steps.

L’Heureux said his plans also involve doing whatever is necessary to regain the public’s trust in the state’s student transportation program. In particular, parents’ trust.

Civil Beat‘s ongoing series Taken for a Ride found that the cost of transporting students to and from school more than doubled over the last several years as competition among contractors dropped off. The Legislature has cut funding for student transportation services in an effort to control costs and the state auditor has blasted the program in a report released in October.

Representatives from the various bus companies attended Tuesday’s two-hour meeting on the MPS study, but did not make any statements despite the chair asking twice if anyone from the public wanted to testify on the matter.

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