Eliminating school bus service on Oahu is the quickest and most effective way to reduce Hawaii’s student transportation costs, school district officials say.

It would save the Department of Education about $15 million per year on its estimated $75 million student transportation budget.

The district’s recommendation was a reluctant one, it said in a long-awaited report to state legislators on Hawaii’s options for curbing skyrocketing school bus costs. School services chief Randy Moore emailed Civil Beat a copy late Tuesday, about two weeks after it was due.

School bus contract costs have doubled in the last six years. In its Taken for a Ride series, Civil Beat has documented how a suspicious lack of competition among school bus companies has contributed to runaway student transportation costs. Earlier this year, the Legislature zeroed out the district’s transportation budget for the coming school year and said it would be reinstated only if district officials come up with ways to reduce costs.

The future of student transportation in the isles hinges on this report and the department’s ability to get a grip on contractors and costs. If the report doesn’t satisfy lawmakers, they insist they will make good on their threat to eliminate school bus funding. At the least, the report and district recommendations likely will mean big changes this year for school bus companies and the school district — not to mention students and families who rely on the service to get their kids to and from schools especially in rural areas.

In 11 pages, the department describes more than a dozen cost-reduction measures it has considered, ranging from coordinating school waiver days and staggering school hours, to consolidating all school bus operations into a single statewide contract and instituting four-day school weeks.

Here’s a sampling of some:

  • Route consolidations: The department says it is is already consolidating routes when and where it can, and this year saved $605,000 as a result.
  • Staggering school hours: The department is exploring this option as a means to assign vehicles multiple trips to multiple campuses, which would reduce the number of vehicles required to get the job done. But it’s unclear how much it would generate in savings.
  • Providing transportation services with state personnel and/or buses: Operating buses with state employees is not “a viable cost-reducing alternative,” the district says, but it is researching the idea of furnishing state-leased buses to private contractors. This would resemble the model used for City and County of Honolulu public transit.

Most of these options would provide marginal savings, at best, according to the report. Eliminating free bus service for low-income students who qualify for free lunch would have the potential to save the state as much as $18 million, but the department said it did not recommend that option.

The only option that would produce significant savings quickly, according to the report, is getting rid of school bus service in certain geographic areas — starting with those that have municipal bus services that could help take up the slack.

“Although the department is not in favor of reducing general education bussing services to any degree since it would place undue hardship on students who depend on public school bus services, we agree that it is probably the only ‘effective’ way of immediately and significantly reducing transportation costs,” the report acknowledges. “To that end, the department recommends that eliminating bus service in parcels, beginning with Oahu riders because of the availability of city bussing services, would be the best approach.”

Read the full report yourself:

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