After months of waiting, the Hawaii State Board of Education at its Tuesday meeting finally got an update from the education department on how it’s moving forward with plans to clean up its student transportation system and rein in the costs of what had become a $75 million operation.

The solution might lie in a new way of paying for bus service. The district plans to test a pilot program that would pay for service based on hours needed, rather than routes driven.

But still unclear is whether potential cuts to the school transportation program will mean even more kids will be without bus service in the next year as the pilot program is being tested.

The state Department of Education over the last few months has been busy working on a plan in light of a third-party study concluding that organizational inefficiency and flawed procurement processes caused school bus costs to swell. The Board of Education has repeatedly urged the department to come up with a solution — and fast.

Board members finally got some answers at their Finance Committee meeting Tuesday. And though the answers don’t yet contain any concrete changes, members say they’re starting to understand that reform takes time.

“Frankly, I initially was wondering if we could have quicker wins,” Finance Committee Chair Wesley Lo told Civil Beat, noting that the department has been fulfilling its tasks on time. “But I’m starting to understand the methodology that they’re going on, and it’s very systematic, it’s very orderly. You’re always anxious until you start seeing results.”

Civil Beat has been tracking Hawaii’s runaway bus costs in its investigative series Taken for a Ride. Civil Beat was the first to report that a lack of competition among school bus bidders forced student transportation costs to soar at an unsustainable rate.

The cost of transporting roughly 35,000 kids to school nearly tripled between 2006 and 2012, prompting legislators to chop $17 million off the DOE’s student transportation budget last year in an effort to pressure the department to bring down costs. But the department failed to come up with a solution, ultimately cutting routes and leaving 2,000 students without rides to school.

Raymond L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, on Tuesday presented the BOE with an update on how the department is moving forward with the study’s recommendations.

Much of L’Heureux’s work so far has been dedicated to implementing a pilot program using a new routing software that can pinpoint inefficiencies in the school bus system. The department has decided to pilot the program at 30 schools the Pearl City-Waipahu region — a decision that was based on a rubric that looked at factors such as number of schools, number of expiring contracts and urban location.

L’Heureux said the DOE opted for an Oahu region in order to ensure department management could easily maintain oversight. It plans to roll the pilot out to neighbor islands by the 2015-16 school year.

The new software generates data that has never before been available to the department. Slides shown at the meeting revealed data snapshots locating where students live and the number of stops per current route.

L’Heureux pointed to a bus map for one school, which currently provides six routes for 190 students. The longest trek for one student is 20 minutes, while the shortest is eight minutes.

The room for improvement, he said, “is astronomical.”

L’Heureux said he hopes to finish analyzing the routes by early next month and draft revised routes by late June, with the goal of implementing the pilot at the 30 schools next school year.

L’Heureux cautioned board members not to seek broader changes before data from the pilot is crunched.

“I attack the alligator that’s closest to my boat,” he said, indicating that his primary focus right now is on getting comprehensive, reliable data — information that didn’t exist four months ago. “This (change) is evolutionary.”

Lo cautioned that much work remains to be done before school officials will know whether the new system is an improvement.

“The department has been working hard, and it was really hard for them in the beginning because we were so worried and wanted so many answers,” Lo said. “But, let’s not get the cart in front of the horse — give us some time to see the pilot.”

“I’m starting to see now where they’re going with this thing and starting to see what works,” he continued. “If you try to shortcut these things, that could be more detrimental in the long run.”

Throughout the meeting, L’Heureux stressed how integral the newly available data is to developing the most cost-effective routes.

“Prior to (this) we were shooting in the dark,” he said. “The way that we’ve been contracting services for the last — well, quite frankly, forever — is the wrong way to do it.”

But all of these changes will take time, L’Heureux emphasized, citing the need for gradual implementation.

Meantime, L’Heureux is on Wednesday starting new contract negotiations with pilot providers in an effort to give the companies more time to bid for contracts.

“One of the limiting factors to competition was time,” L’Heureux said. “We’ve been operating without any real back-and-forth exchange of real-time data.”

Now, bidders will have a year and go through a two-step procurement process that entails qualification-based selection and requests for proposals, according to L’Heureux, who added that the revised procurement process should be ready by the 2014-15 school year.

L’Heureux stressed that the new bids would reflect a significant shift in the way procurement is handled. Instead of buying routes, the department will now be purchasing bus time.

“If you have a route that has one person on it, you’re still paying for it,” Lo said. “This is a change in the way we’re thinking and the way we’re bidding.”

Sentiments expressed at Tuesday’s meeting echoed much of what lawmakers told Civil Beat late last month: the DOE’s school transportation reform process looks like it’s in good shape.

Two bills that would give the DOE more flexibility in how it awards school bus contracts — Senate Bills 1082 and 1083 — have steadily advanced through the Legislature and are going into conference committee Wednesday.

Still, how much funding the DOE will get for its student transportation program is up in the air. The Senate budget draft includes $4 million for the program — $4 million less than what the department requested.

When asked whether more routes are in jeopardy, L’Heureux said he didn’t want to speculate but suggested that the department wouldn’t be able to fill in the gap.

“I know that the efficiencies that we’re going to find in the pilot program are not going to make up for that,” he said.

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