We’d been hearing about how soaring school bus costs were robbing Hawaii’s classrooms for some time.

But nobody seemed to be able to put their finger on why it was happening.

Their guess: Lack of competition.

But it was just that. Nobody was pointing fingers or naming names.

As we reported after this year’s legislative session, lawmakers produced a report that said the following:

“Even with continued requests from the Legislature to the department to address the exorbitant contract costs, the department has allowed the student transportation program to run at a significant deficit, simply utilizing funds from other sources rather than make concerted efforts to bring down costs.”

Were lawmakers correct? We decided to find out. It wasn’t easy.

Education reporter Katherine Poythress obtained every bid for a bus contract since 2001 to determine what had happened with each route. We’re talking roughly 140 contracts covering more than 700 routes.

The reason we had to go back so far is that each contract is for six years, and bus companies have the option to extend them for another four. That means that a contract that went up for bid in 2010 might not have been up for a decade. We needed to know whether it was treated differently from the last time it was put out to bid.

Katherine worked with Honolulu reporter Michael Levine to build a complex spreadsheet that would allow us to examine what had happened with each bus route over 11 years in great detail. We also matched our spreadsheet with numerous reports and data produced by the Hawaii Department of Education.

We found something startling: Not one regular school bus contract in the past four years has had multiple bidders. Not one. And although the district has the authority to reject contracts and try to force down price increases, it has not done so even once in the past four years.

This despite the fact that the district is run by someone known for her business expertise, not her education credentials. Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi is a lawyer who ran the Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs for former Gov. Ben Cayetano, and worked as executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable.

Based on what we found, it appears that district officials are not doing much to protect the public’s purse.

It took hundreds of hours to gather data and construct our own spreadsheets to analyze what had happened at the Department of Education.

The bottom line: After reviewing the data — and reading Katherine’s articles — I think you’ll agree that you have to wonder who’s minding the store. Because it seems like the bus companies are getting what they want, while educational spending is being cut and parents and taxpayers are paying vastly more for transportation.

Something is wrong with that picture. Until now, despite tough talk from some legislators, nothing has been done about it.

Maybe Katherine and Mike’s work will change that.

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