Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on Hawaii’s runaway school bus costs. Read other articles in the series.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his Department of Education say they want even more money to run school buses next year — even though the Legislature told them to cut costs.

On Tuesday, the governor said he wanted $54 million in state funds for school buses next year, up from $49 million this year. The department wants even more: $71 million.

Theirs is going to be a tough sell. The Legislature eliminated funding for regular school buses next year in the face of skyrocketing costs, and said it wouldn’t put it back unless it was convinced there was a plan to cut costs. It left $29 million for students with special needs.

Lack of competition among contractors — something the FBI has been looking into — resulted in a budget that has more than doubled in the last six years. The Legislature ordered the department to submit a report with a cost analysis and suggestions for reducing expenses.

The governor’s request came Tuesday at a Board of Education meeting. It is $17 million less than the department says it needs, but $5 million more than it got this year. Federal funds cover the rest of the total cost, which is $72 million this year.

2012 Appropriation 2013 Legislative Appropriation 2013 DOE Request 2013 Governor’s Request
$49 million* $29 million $71 million $54 million

*The state received $23 million in federal funds to augment its $49 million contribution.

The department’s request for more money doesn’t seem to square with the Legislature’s insistence that the department cut transportation costs.

But that doesn’t mean district officials don’t have ideas. School services chief Randy Moore shared a laundry list of cost-savings options with the board Tuesday, expected to be included in the legislative report, due Friday.

They included everything from raising fares again and making contracts longer, to instituting a four-day school week and providing operating bases to contractors. Not all of them are viewed equally in district officials’ eyes, Moore said.

Board Chairman Don Horner assured board members and members of the public that these are simply ideas, not suggestions, and Moore said the department has not committed to most of them yet. The board and district officials seem to be waiting for the Legislature’s guidance.

At least one of the ideas is already in motion, though. The department this year began tweaking new contracts to allow the use of older buses.

Horner said that although it’s worthwhile to explore cost-saving measures, he wants to address head-on the lack of competition among school bus contractors.

Civil Beat, in its Taken for a Ride series, analyzed 11 years of contract bid documents and found that, since 2007, bus companies have not competed with one another even once for a regular school bus route. Instead, each contract has received only one bid, leaving the department with the option to accept it, negotiate it or reject it. In every case, the department chose to accept what the contractor wanted.

“When that many contracts receive only one bid, I challenge the bid process,” Horner told Moore at Tuesday’s meeting. “The Legislature wants to know how we plan to reduce service cost over time. And the Legislature’s point is that we don’t have competition. And we don’t have competition partially because of the way we manage the process. We need to address that issue squarely.”

Moore said he has spoken with “more than one” school bus firm that has expressed interest in bidding on one statewide master contract, one of the department’s cost-saving ideas.

Meanwhile, the state of the local industry has attracted the attention of at least one mainland company, which has picked up bid paperwork.

“I think this time around we will have some competitive bids,” Moore told the board. “I think we need to attack some of these other things as well.”

Read Moore’s full overview of ideas below:

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