Last spring the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District became aware there was rough road ahead in terms of providing transportation for students. As a result, a proposal is being developed to bridge a $750,000 annual deficit by changing southern Kenai Peninsula bus schedules, school start times and making some school boundary adjustments.
To bridge that gap, the district's proposal could mean the following changes for the southern peninsula:
* Switching from one- to two-tiered bus routes, meaning buses would be used for two rather than just one pickup and delivery. The change requires fewer buses and is already being done in the central peninsula;
* Changing start and dismissal times to match the two-tiered bus schedule;
* Adhering to district policy that families provide transportation to students attending schools out of their area;
* Making some boundary changes.
Before First Student's contract to provide transportation ended in June 2011, the district released a request for proposals and received one response.
"And that response had increased tremendously price-wise from the one five years earlier," said Dave Jones, KPBSD assistant superintendent.
Jones took that information to the school board, telling them he wouldn't sign or recommend a five-year contract that would put the district "three-quarters of a million in the hole for each of five years."
A one-year extension on the existing contract was made and a search across the district began to find ways to cut transportation costs. The district is trying to finalize its cost-cutting measures so bidders on a new RFP for student transportation will know what they're bidding on and, hopefully, "attract another vendor or two and hope competition would bring the price down," said Jones.
Since October, Jones has met with the school board, school principals and early this month held community meetings in Homer and Anchor Point to develop a money-saving proposal. Documents on that proposal are available on the district's website. Comments and questions will continue to be taken by the district through Jan. 21, with the RFP going out sometime between the end of December and early January.
"Basically the RFP will say the number of routes that we'll guarantee we'll be running and the price set per bus for us to have buses," said Jones. "And then we'll go back to the board again in February."
As an example of the two-tier bus system now in place in the central peninsula, Jones said a bus currently picks up and delivers students to Soldotna High School and then picks up and delivers students to Soldotna Elementary School rather than using separate buses for each school.
"We pay for one bus and deliver two sets of students," he said.
How that would change start and dismissal times for southern peninsula schools is yet to be determined, said Jones.
He described the changes to school boundaries being considered as "really very minor."
"For example, where the border comes between Skyview and Ninilchik High School, we're moving that border about a half mile north of where it currently exists to a spot where there's a bus turnaround," said Jones. "The rest of them are the same type of thing -- changing boundaries to get safe turnarounds."
The district's transportation policy calls for families to provide transportation for students attending out-of-area schools. One of the lines on the district's out-of-area attendance request form parents are asked to initial is an agreement to "accept responsibility for transporting transfer students to and from school in a timely manner."
"But the practice has been if a bus is running with an empty seat, they'll transport the child," said Jones. "The big difference will be that now with buses running at different times, there won't be buses to transport some of the out-of-area students. ... If the parents want to continue to send their child to an out-of-area school like they've been doing, they'll need to transport them."
Benny Abraham, principal of Paul Banks Elementary School, said he doesn't anticipate much change to his school.
"Anytime you make a change, there'll have to be things worked out," said Abraham. "It's hard right now to look at it and see what all the implications and affects will be on everything. You do your best to minimize that and do the best you can for all schools and families, but it's a difficult thing to try to piece transportation together."
In addition to out-of-area students, Pete Swanson, principal of McNeil Canyon Elementary School, said after-school programs could be impacted by a change in bus schedules.
Homer High School site council has asked HHS Principal Allen Gee's support in maintaining the school's current start time of 8:30 a.m. and dismissal time of 3:15 p.m.
"However, if we do so, then the elementary schools will need to either start before us or after," said Gee.
The high school's start time also could impact students' ability to take classes at Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage.
"If we start earlier, then I could potentially schedule juniors and seniors that want to take a class at the college earlier in the day. If later, then I need to let KBC know that potentially we'd need access later in the afternoon for classes the kids want to take," said Gee.
Homer Middle School Principal David Larson sees the two-tier bus system as a direct and timely delivery of students and use of personnel.
"It would allow us to streamline supervision of the kids getting on the bus," said Larson. "They wouldn't have to wait around a long time. ... It's more opportunity to utilize staff and resources at the school."
Jones stressed the need for the public to understand the district is given a limited amount of state funding for transportation per student.
"If it costs more than what we get from that payment, then we have to find the dollars somewhere else or cut costs to equal what we're reimbursed from the state," he said.
* To view KPBSD bus transportation routes, visit www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/departments.aspx?id=22938.
* To access the district's online comment form, visit www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/departments.aspx?id=23051.
* To contact Jones, e-mail at DaveJones@kpbsd.k12.ak.us or .phone at (907) 714-8838.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.