The pilot student transportation program that the Hawaii Department of Education plans to roll out to some Oahu schools next school year is expected to do more than just test out an innovative way of buying school bus routes — officials say it’ll also restore rides for many of the 2,000 kids who lost out when routes were cut this past school year.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, Education Committee chair, called the DOE’s plan to completely revamp its school bus program — and ultimately cut transportation costs by millions of dollars — “strategic” and “deliberate.”

Raymond L’Heureux, the DOE’s assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, publicly unveiled his reform strategy for the first time at a Board of Education meeting last month. The plan involves new software that uses real-time data, a pilot process that is designed to allow officials to fine-tune the program along the way and significant changes to bus providers’ bidding procedures, including two bills passed this session that aim to loosen up once-costly school bus contracting laws.

The new system is expected to be rolled out to Oahu schools by the 2014-15 school year, with the goal of implementing it statewide by the 2015-16 school year. But officials say the state should start to see improvements to student transportation as soon as the upcoming school year, in part because the Legislature — after severely cutting funding last year — recently decided to give the DOE an additional $8 million for student transportation for the 2013 fiscal year.

“I can see where this is going, I can see where they’re headed,” said Tokuda, who came down hard on the department last year for failing to come up with a solution for cutting school bus costs. “There’s a timeframe. It’s phased. It’s manageable. It’s logical and data-driven.”

“This is, again, unlike anything I have seen before in this particular area — and we’ve asked for many years.”

Civil Beat has been investigating the DOE’s runaway bus costs in its ongoing series Taken For A Ride. Civil Beat was the first to report that a drop in competition among bidders caused school bus costs to soar, nearly tripling between 2006 and 2012.

It cost the state roughly $70 million to bus some 35,000 students last school year, prompting independent consultant MPS to conclude in a November 2012 study that “these (costs) far exceed national norms, and are comparable to the most expensive student transportation operations MPS has worked with throughout North America.”

The report outlined a number of recommendations — including changes to procurement laws and route planning tactics — and it appears as though the state is attending to them, MPS Vice President Tim Ammon told Civil Beat.

“They’re certainly making a tremendous amount of effort” to respond to the report, Ammon said, adding that the DOE is still contracting with MPS in case it needs further assistance reforming the program.

Tokuda agreed, saying that the department is really taking to heart its “fiduciary responsibility to make sure school bus transportation is done right and done well.”

That sentiment comes in stark contrast to the intense frustration lawmakers had expressed in recent years with the DOE’s handling of school bus costs. The Legislature last year agreed to give the department just $25 million for its student transportation services this past school year — $17 million less than what the DOE said it needed — in an effort to force the district to clamp down on its spending.

But the district couldn’t decide how to slash costs and was forced to cut routes and dip into other money pots, including federal funding meant to offset the costs of educating military dependents.

Now the reform effort is on track, wrote DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz on behalf of L’Heureux, who’s out of town until later this week.

The department is currently gearing up for the pilot program, which is slated for implementation next school year in the Pearl City-Aiea region — an area that was selected based on various factors, including geographic distribution of roughly 30 schools and the number of expiring contracts

“We believe the pilot will provide the efficiency data that will lead to overall success,” Dela Cruz wrote, adding that school bus transportation would resume for any students in the Pearl City-Aiea region who lost service because of last year’s cuts.

Services for students living out of that area, however, won’t resume because the department doesn’t have enough funds to cover the residual contracts.

“The pilot going forward will allow us to realize savings, and once that happens one of the priorities will be to reinstate service to those affected areas,” Dela Cruz wrote.

The department is still finalizing its budget and has yet to decide how much it’ll end up spending on student transportation next school year. Dela Cruz stressed that much of the school bus funding goes toward special education students, who get rides curb to curb.

The Legislature has set aside roughly $33 million for services, including this year’s additional $8 million.

Tokuda said she doesn’t want to specify exactly how much she thinks the DOE should ultimately be spending on student transportation. What she expects, instead, is “negative trending” in costs.

“I want to see the signs pointing to the fact that we’re not having rampant increases in costs to student transportation with no logical reason as to why,” she said.

Meantime, L’Heureux has already started negotiating contracts with some providers — well in advance of next school year, when the revised procurement process is slated to go into effect. Officials say the new procedure involves bidding not based on routes taken but on other, more cost-effective factors such as hours driven.

L’Heureux at a BOE meeting last month said the new approach — which he describes as a “fundamental shift in philosophy and expectations” — would give providers more time to bid, thus enhancing competition.

Two laws passed this year — Senate Bills 1082 and 1083 — delete a number of what MPS called “atypical” statutory requirements and are also expected to increase competition. SB 1082 gives the DOE greater flexibility in how it awards contracts, while SB 1083 deletes school bus driver compensation requirements.

Dela Cruz said that it remains to be seen how the providers will respond to the changes, but officials anticipate they’ll be cooperative.

“Our contractors understand that the legislative laws dictate the procurement method, therefore this isn’t about favoring anyone, rather it is a more transparent process,” Dela Cruz wrote.

Tokuda said she appreciates that L’Heureux’s plan extends beyond the initial testing phase.

“They’re taking a very deliberate action to show that it’s not just about doing a pilot and stopping there,” she said, noting that the DOE has also been piloting some new contracting methods on the Big Island. “They’re taking those results and turning them into actual results that will change the system.”

But Tokuda said lawmakers will continue to keep an eye on the department, stressing that the state budget doesn’t include any additional student transportation funding for fiscal year 2014.

“The message it sends to the department is, while we’re not holding anyone hostage, we are expecting some clear results and answers,” she said.

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