A long-anticipated study on how to fix the state’s student transportation program is done, but the Hawaii Department of Education isn’t ready to release it to the public.

Management Partnership Services, the Maryland-based consultant the state paid $109,000 to do the study, submitted its report Monday after a two-month review of Hawaii’s school bus system.

The department issued a short news release late Monday afternoon with general comments from Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, but no details from the study itself.

DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said the report will be made public after the Attorney General’s office reviews it and possibly makes redactions. She cited an exemption in the public records law that would cover cases in which the state might become involved in litigation. But she didn’t specify whether that meant the state would be suing anyone or if the state expects to be sued.

Civil Beat has been documenting runaway bus costs in its investigative series, Taken for a Ride. The series reported that competitive bidding suddenly dropped off as transportation costs nearly tripled — to $72.4 million since 2006.

The district in July cut 74 bus routes — impacting some 2,000 kids — to make up part of a $17 million budget gap after state lawmakers again gave the department less money than it had asked for to try to force school officials to crack down on the soaring cost of bus contracts.

The shortfall is expected to continue for at least the next two years. The department’s proposed biennium budget calls for an extra $16 million to make up the difference as education officials work to overhaul the school bus program.
The department hired the consultant to investigate strategies to improve efficiencies and find out what led to increased costs by school bus contractors.

Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Support Services, told the Board of Education last month that MPS succeeded in its mission to uncover why school bus costs escalated so quickly. But he didn’t delve into specifics because the report hadn’t been finalized at that point.

Board members at the time said they wanted to hold a special meeting in early November to have the consultant come present its findings. That didn’t happen, and it’s not on the agenda for the board’s Tuesday meeting either.

Board Chair Don Horner said it’s his understanding the board will vet the report the first week of December.

The consultant’s study comes on the heels of a scathing report from the state auditor, whose office blasted the department for its “haphazard oversight of school bus contracts.”

Matayoshi said in a statement that the MPS study is the “first of many steps in a process of reform needed for our school bus transportation system.”

The report provides “recommendations for the procurement, data and performance processes, which are part of the foundation of change,” she said.

“The DOE is committed to making substantive improvements by doing its due diligence in implementing solutions that provide the most efficient, timely and safe transportation services for our students,” Matayoshi said in the release.

The department started soliciting bids in May for the student bus transportation study. Under terms of the contract, the report was due last Thursday.

The consultant was expected to accomplish several large tasks. These included: comparisons of student transportation costs of similar districts; identification of large districts that operate buses themselves, totally contract out services, and a mix of both; analysis of pros and cons of different contracting models; analysis of DOE school bus contract terms and recommendations for changes; and analysis of the DOE’s student transportation internal organization and recommendations on how to reduce costs and/or improve services.

—Sara Lin contributed to this report.

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