Hawaii Department of Education officials say they would have to end school bus service on Oahu if the Legislature doesn’t give them millions of dollars even beyond what the governor is seeking for school bus transportation next year.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has requested $54 million for bus transportation costs next year. But that’s $17 million shy of what the department says it needs in order to continue providing student transportation at the current level next year.

If they don’t get all the money, district officials say they will have to eliminate regular school bus service on Oahu, leaving 17,000 kids who now ride the bus scrambling to find other transportation.

“Some of those 17,000 kids will take the city bus,” said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services. “Some of those, their parents will take them. Some will find a way to carpool. Some of them conceivably will walk or ride a bicycle. And some of them — we hope very few — simply won’t go.”

The Hawaii Department of Education is already under pressure from the Legislature to reduce costs, not increase them. Transportation costs have skyrocketed in recent years, up from about $34 million a year in 2005 to $75 million a year in 2012.

Civil Beat has been examining the rising costs in its series, Taken for a Ride, and found that costs climbed dramatically when bus contractors abruptly stopped competing against each other. The school district chose to pay whatever price the companies asked to keep bus service going.

Lawmakers have been pressing district officials to find ways to bring costs down, including coming up with recommendations on how to increase competition. So far, school officials have been at a loss as to how to encourage more bidders, an attitude that has frustrated key education legislators.

In a report to the Legislature earlier this year about school bus costs, the department estimated it could save about $15 million per year by eliminating the service on the most populous island.

But the state might not actually save that much right away, Moore said, because ending contracts with school bus companies comes at a price.

“The contracts provide for compensation in the event of early termination, and we’re not certain what the amount would be,” Moore said. The companies affected would need to calculate their claims and submit them to the school district. He estimated earlier this year that it would not exceed $7.3 million.

Savings aside, if the school district does terminate those contracts, about 17,000 students on Oahu would have to find an alternative way to get to school.

The school district would have to continue providing transportation to school in some form for certain students under federal law, including homeless children, those with special needs and those who qualify for the school choice provision under No Child Left Behind rules, which allows students to transfer out of underperforming schools.

Oahu is the most feasible location to cut school bus services, Moore said, because the island’s public transit system is already so expansive and could provide many students with a decent alternative for getting to school.

But it may not be that easy for the city bus service to pick up potentially thousands of extra kids five days a week.

Honolulu Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka said that while the city wants to accommodate the Department of Education in the event of an extreme school bus cutback, he’s not sure every bus route could handle the extra riders.

The city has already taken on student riders on some routes where the Department of Education eliminated school bus service a year and a half ago to save money. It was important then to be selective about which routes were eliminated, Yoshioka said, because the city bus system could accommodate extra riders on certain routes better than on others. The district only discontinued service in areas where there was parallel city bus service.

“In the past, the Department of Education has been very considerate in terms of which routes it cuts,” he said. “A couple of years ago we went through a similar thing and instead of cutting all the routes they originally anticipated, because of some of our concerns they only cut a portion of them. We were able to adjust accordingly. I understand this cycle around, it may be one of the more painful ones.

“We’re not saying we’re opposed to what they’re doing or that we don’t want to handle it, but that we may not be able to.”

About 70 percent of Honolulu’s bus system costs are already subsidized by taxpayers, he said, and adding additional buses to the existing routes could cost anywhere between $100,000 and $400,000 per year for each bus.

Moore said lawmakers will decide the fate for students when they finalize the state budget this year, and he hopes whatever they decide will give him time to devise a plan before school starts in August.

“Whether Oahu bus service will be cut is really up to the Legislature,” he said. “Do they want to give us the money for that or don’t they? Maybe the money isn’t there. Given the competing needs, will this rise high enough on the priority list?”

Read testimony Moore presented to the Legislature on the student transportation system, and read his report on how the state could save money by eliminating Oahu school bus service below.

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