The Hawaii Department of Education won’t be taking over statewide school bus operations anytime soon, based on what officials have learned from an emergency takeover of 12 school bus routes in Kailua-Kona seven years ago.

The state has been looking for ways to curb skyrocketing costs stemming from a lack of competition among contractors that Civil Beat has documented in its Taken for a Ride series. So far, the ideas have ranged from raising fares and consolidating routes to shortening the school week or eliminating services altogether. But bringing services in house is not going to be the solution, Student Transportation Services Manager James Kauhi told Civil Beat.

The department outsources services for its 800 or so school bus routes, but in 2005 was unable to secure an agreement with a service provider for 12 routes on the Big Island. Faced with the possibility of having no school bus services at all for students in that area, then-Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto and then-Student Transportation Services Manager Blanche Fountain decided that the department would engage in its own operations, Kauhi said.

The department leased some vehicles, created half-time bus driver positions in the Office of Human Resources and recruited some drivers. The department is still in charge of those routes today, but is about to get out from under them. Last year, the district solicited bids on a six-year contract to run those routes starting this fall, and hopes to finalize contracts soon.

What state officials have learned is that running their own school bus operations requires a level of capital outlay, personnel and expertise that the department doesn’t have, said Kauhi, who has managed the department’s Student Transportation Services Branch for the last two years.

What they haven’t learned is exactly how the cost of running school buses in-house compares with the cost of contracting them out. That’s because officials have not been effective tracking expenses in the Kailua-Kona operation.

Bus Driver Shortage

Bus company operators say finding and keeping qualified school bus drivers is one of the most significant and ongoing problems they face.

The Department of Education found the same situation, which Kauhi said is a nationwide challenge.

“The school bus driver is a highly desired commodity, yet it’s very difficult to find people who are willing to dedicate their energy and time to a half-time position,” Kauhi explained. “Once they obtain commercial drivers licenses, they look for full-time employment to get full return on their credentials. School bus drivers don’t get that because they work only four or five hours a day. It is and continues to be an issue.”

The Department of Education hoped to hire between 12 and 14 drivers, but never got anywhere close to that number.

“It was insurmountable, and therefore we were never able to provide high-quality service to the schools,” Kauhi said. “One of the other lessons the DOE learned is that it cannot assume that bus drivers will be flocking to join the DOE simply because it’s a public service position.”

Managing from Afar

The state also learned that it requires careful planning and dedicated expertise to effectively run a school bus operation.

“I think one of the most important lessons that was learned from this effort is that it is virtually impossible to manage a live school bus operation remotely, from a distance,” Kauhi said. “In order to function as a school bus operation, you absolutely have to have a full-time manager on site to deal with driver attendance, training, someone who’s on top of vehicle maintenance and dealing with vendors to repair and maintain them. It is literally a full-time function, and the absence of having an individual to handle just that made it very difficult.”

He said that the department started with a team of employees to handle those operations, but subsequently lost the team and tried to manage from Honolulu.

Neither the management team or the administrators in Honolulu tried to identify the costs, which means it is now virtually impossible to accurately report the expense for the Department of Education to operate its own vehicles.

That’s just as well, Kauhi said, because running the Hilo routes was never intended to be a pilot project. It was an emergency move, and the department always planned to get out of the school bus service as soon as possible.

“It’s important that we understand that the limited services DOE provided in Kailua-Kona for the last six and a half years was entirely an effort to provide busing services to Kailua-Kona residents without interruption,” he explained. “We never engaged in this as an evaluation process of whether we could do it ourselves.”

Lawmakers pushing for solutions to the rising costs had asked the district about the cot of operating routes itself. But they know doing so would be more expensive in the short term than maintaining existing contracts, and riskier in the long term.

“We’ve encouraged them to explore alternatives, among those to look at what it would cost to bring school bus service in-house,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige. “They’ve done some work on it, it’s not as far as we would like it, but the reality is we don’t have a whole lot of money.”

Still, Kauhi has tried to get a handle on the expenses by first meeting with Oahu Transit Services to learn what kind of formula the company uses to calculate per-hour and per-bus costs. The formulas are complicated and would require information that the former transportation services managers didn’t collect or keep, he said.

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda said she never viewed a takeover of operations as a high-priority option.

“I did want them to consider options that are slightly different, like owning the vehicle leases but contracting out the services,” she said. ” For myself, I felt that was much more practical and realistic than having our own bus shop, so if they do their due diligence on that and it doesn’t particularly pan out, that’s fine.”

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