A projected $22 million budget shortfall for student transportation services next year will likely result in more traffic congestion and higher drop-out rates, school officials warned Tuesday.

“It’s an issue that affects every single person,” Hawaii Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Randy Moore told Board of Education members. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, at all, to do any of this.”

He presented recommendations that included doubling the qualifying distance, cutting certain free fares and selectively eliminating some bus routes.

State lawmakers are slashing funding for school bus services in light of skyrocketing costs, which have doubled over the past seven years as competition among contractors dissolved.

Civil Beat has been investigating the runaway costs in its Taken for a Ride series which has documented the mysterious drop-off in bidding among longtime school bus companies.

The legislative session is at a critical juncture. The House version of the budget bill prescribes $20.3 million for student transportation services. The Senate version, approved Monday, calls for $23 million. That wrinkle will be ironed out in conference committee over the next few weeks.

“It may end up at one or the other or in between or more or less. There’s no way to predict it,” Moore said. “It appears very likely we will not get the $42 million that we requested. So the question becomes what do we do.”

The $42 million is on top of $28 million the department has to spend on federally mandated services. This brings the total annual budget to get the state’s students to and from school to $70 million, plus almost $3 million for internal overhead. Meanwhile, bus revenue remains under $3 million, officials said.

Board members used the meeting to make a public plea to state lawmakers for “the flexibility” to resolve the crisis without a major reduction in services.

“The Legislature has gotten our attention,” BOE Chair Don Horner said. “We’ve gotten the message.”

This was not the first time the chair said the board had received the message. Back in November, he said essentially the same thing.

He said the district will be unable to meet student achievement goals if the state cuts funding as planned. Horner was not necessarily suggesting cutting classroom programs but making the point that transportation is directly linked to students being successful in school.

“We need time to get this right so we’re asking the Legislature to give us that flexibility,” Horner said.

Board member Brian DeLima redirected the blame for the likely impact that “thousands of families” will feel next year. He underscored that the board does not have the power to appropriate funds.

“We cannot solve the problem unilaterally by making any policy change,” he said. “The public concerns should be addressed to the elected officials that have that authority before it’s too late.”

Horner briefly interjected to say that the Legislature has rightfully requested the board and department to show they are serious about managing transportation costs, adding that this should be a strength of an appointed board.

A DOE news release Tuesday says the department will submit a request to the board to consider its recommendation for action, if necessary, following the Legislature’s approval of the state budget.

Horner was careful to stress from the meeting’s outset that the board, at this point, was looking at a “range of options” as opposed to a “recommendation for action.”

“We’ll have to make some difficult decisions based on this,” he said.

Safety was a serious concern for some board members, including Kauai representative Nancy Budd.

“There is no safe way for kids to get to school. Period. It would be an absolute disaster,” she said, speaking on behalf of Neighbor Island schools.

Moore said buses are hands down the safest means of transporting students to school.

“If I were the emperor, I would actually have all the school buses be free,” he said. “It’s safer than walking, bicycling, going with your older teenage brother.”

The board explored the recommendations and alternatives proposed in Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi‘s Tuesday letter to Wesley Lo, who chairs the board’s Committee on Finance and Infrastructure.

She broke down by category the implications of the recommendations.

“Discontinuing bus services may cause some students to be late to or absent from school, or arrive too late to participate in the school breakfast program,” Matayoshi wrote under “Educational implication.” “Some students may drop out of school.”

Board members also discussed related memos from Moore, detailing potential “operational changes, contract changes and changes in practice” that could produce savings.

The board directed the department to produce a more thorough analysis of two proposals that would mark a fundamental shift in how bus services are currently provided.

The department estimates an annual savings up to $15 million if the state were to buy its own fleet of school buses and lease them to contractors. The critical question Horner had though was whether this would actually stimulate competition, the root of the problem.

“I for one, think it’s worth pursuing,” Lo said. “We obviously have to start changing practice to save some money.”

The board also asked the department to come back with more information on possibly changing to a single statewide contract for bus service.

While Horner seemed to support this idea, the department had chalked it up as “probably not” desirable. Moore said the the likely result would be Roberts Hawaii, a large tour bus operator, being the only local contractor with the capacity to bid and the rest going out of business.

State Auditor Marion Higa has launched an audit into student transportation services. She declared her objectives in a letter last month.

Horner said nearly three dozen initiatives to better manage “our unsustainable cost increases” have been identified and reviewed.

“The department is continuing to examine additional solutions to maintain quality service while becoming more efficient and effective,” he said in an email last month. “We welcome an audit of our procurement and procedures and look forward their recommendations for improvements.”

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