Hawaii Board of Education members said Tuesday that they are tired of hearing the same progress reports on how the department plans to fix its student transportation system.

“At some point you got to move to the next level,” Board member Brian De Lima told Ray L’Heureux, the assistant superintendent who oversees the $70 million school bus program. “I would like to have a better understanding of when that’s going to occur.”

De Lima said he wants a concrete timeline and more details of what school officials are doing to address the systematic flaws identified last year by the state auditor and an outside consultant.

L’Heureux said it’s difficult to lay out a calendar because there are so many moving parts. In particular, he highlighted a pair of bills moving through the Legislature this session that would change how the department contracts school bus services.

Dozens of contracts are up for renewal in June, L’Heureux said. If the department was doing business as usual, he said those would already have been renewed without any amendments to bring down costs and stimulate competition.

Contract costs more than doubled after bidding among contractors abruptly stopped in 2006. Civil Beat has documented the runaway costs in its Taken for a Ride investigative series.

Senate Bill 1082 and Senate Bill 1083, along with their House companion measures, would give the Department of Education more flexibility in handling the contracts. The legislation has cleared the education committees. The money committees will vote on the bills Thursday morning.

The board took an official position on the bills Tuesday, voting to support both. The board also delegated its chair, Don Horner, to testify on the legislation. He had been doing so as an individual this session, but will represent the board going forward.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s policy analyst, Tammi Chun, told the board that the governor supports both bills.

The Legislature for the past few years has slashed the department’s funding for its student transportation program to try to force school officials to address the problem more expeditiously.

L’Heureux said next school year will operate like a bridge away from the how the department has been doing business. He set the 2014-15 school year as his target to have the revamped transportation program fully implemented.

It’s too early this session to know how much money lawmakers will give the program next year. But the department may be able to use federal funds again to shore up any shortfall and help make the transition.

Wesley Lo, the board’s Finance Committee chair, said the department will receive a one-time windfall in federal Impact Aid money that could be used to help it fix the student transportation system and other programs like food services.

The department covered a big chunk of its student transportation deficit last year with $8 million in Impact Aid. The program provides funding for a portion of the educational costs of federally connected students, which in Hawaii primarily means military.

The department now expects to have $21 million in Impact Aid funds to use at its discretion. Planned uses include student transportation, hard-to-fill bonuses, contingencies and technology infrastructure, according to a draft DOE document shared with the board Tuesday.

The extra money could come in handy since the department is not expecting to be under budget this year. Halfway through the school year, the department is on track to spend all $70.4 million allotted to run the school bus program, said Amy Kunz, DOE chief financial officer.

Bus-Routing, Student-Tracking Technology Progress

L’Heureux said the district has made strides in some areas already.

He highlighted a Feb. 1 summit that brought together stakeholders to find efficiencies in how the school bus program serves special education students.

Providing transportation for special education students, which comprise 10 percent of the overall ridership, accounts for 44 percent of the overall budget. L’Heureux said committees were formed at the summit, and a report to the board is expected in March.

L’Heureux also said routing software for the buses that serve general education students is finally up and running in a pilot program on the Big Island. He said this technology, combined with software that tracks how many students ride each bus, will give the department critical data to manage the program.

“Now you’ve got this synergistic common operational picture, if you will, of real-time data that you can make decisions with,” he said.

L’Heureux said the plan is to change the procurement model so that type of technology is included as a spec in the contracts.

“It’s 2013. It’s unrealistic, or even unreasonable, to think that this transportation model in the Department of Education in the State of Hawaii should not be using best practices and technology that is basically a commodity in this industry,” he said.

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