Recently Jim Clark, the governor's chief of staff, authored an opinion piece, which ran in the Peninsula Clarion Monday. The article deals with options for pupil transportation. Mr. Clark closed the article by saying that he looked forward to the debate in the Legislature. Since that debate will most likely be outside the visibility of the public at large, and Mr. Clark has taken the opportunity to put forward the administration's views, it would be appropriate to present additional information and correct any errors and omissions to Mr. Clark's article.
Mr. Clark states in his initial paragraph that the state reimburses all transportation costs. This is factually untrue. The state, over the past several years, has reimbursed school districts up to 100 percent of their home-to-school transportation costs. There have been years that the home-to-school transportation has not been fully reimbursed.
Mr. Clark mentions emergency bus routes that transport students one-and-a-half miles from school. In actuality, these are called hazardous routes and they transport students who live within one-and-a-half miles of school and who face dangerous walking conditions. The state only reimburses 50 percent of the cost of these routes.
The state does not reimburse pupil transportation for regular education summer school programs, school-to-school shuttles, activity trips and field trips. The state has recently refused to reimburse school districts for new home-to-school routes due to growing demand.
Mr. Clark calls the current reimbursement system a "cost-plus" program, and one gets the idea that school districts are spending state money without restraint or oversight. Again, this is factually untrue.
School districts are required to follow a specific state procurement procedure for contracting pupil transportation services. The district's procurement document must be approved by the state, the district must receive approval from the state prior to awarding a contract, and the districts are required to submit their reimbursable costs and appropriate backup to the state on a monthly basis for approval.
The article touts the advantages of House Bill 259, stating that "as the total student population increases, the district's allocation increases." But what happens if "total" student population is stagnate or declines, and the "riding" student population increases? There are several school districts throughout the state that are experiencing this right now and have been over the last several years.
The fact of the matter is that the special education ridership has increased dramatically over the past several years, despite, in many cases, a declining overall student population.
In rural school districts, the num-ber of school bus routes is rarely driven by student population or ridership, it is driven by long transportation distances. In those cases, a declining overall student population does not equate to a corresponding decline in bus routes.
I believe that most school districts view HB 259 as a means to shift future pupil transportation cost increases from the state to the districts. With school districts already facing even more severe budget cuts, adding additional costs for pupil transportation could be a back breaker for some. Let's not lose sight of the campaign promises made concerning education.
Mr. Clark cites the increased costs of student transportation as a problem; there are few who would disagree. I met with the state Department of Education two years in a row in the mid to late 1990s to suggest ways to cut or contain rising pupil transportation costs. Those suggestions were met with a deaf ear.
Instead, DOE decided that the increased costs were due to the state having a lack of competition by having only one national pupil transportation provider in the state. Another national pupil transportation provider was induced to bid contracts in the state, and the costs still increased. So much for that theory.
It is important to know the reasons for the rising costs. Common sense dictates some of the price increases. Insurance costs have skyrocketed due to our litigious society and the insurance company's losses on the stock market. Obviously pupil transportation uses a lot of fuel, so rising fuel costs are a significant factor.
Two of the most significant factors are more subtle: special education transportation and school bus driver wages. Special education transportation has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. These students' specialized needs require specialized buses and equipment, increased transportation alternatives and destinations, specialized training for the transporters and a special needs attendant on board the bus in addition to the driver.
The number of special needs students has increased far beyond the normal growth experience, driven by federal- and court-mandated edicts. School districts are required to seek out potential special needs students before they reach normal school attendance age; in many cases we are transporting 3-year-olds.
The state enacted legislation back in the 1980s to require a minimum wage for school bus drivers equal to twice the Alaska minimum wage. The minimum wage was set at the beginning of a contract and would not change until the contract was rebid. The new school bus driver minimum wage corresponded to regulations increasing the requirements for driver background investigations and initial and on-going training.
Today's typical school bus driver applicant is currently vetted by the FBI and the Alaska Department of Public Safety. There is a review of court records and past employers. Applicants must pass a drug test. Their initial training consists of 40 to 60 hours of combined classroom and behind-the-wheel training and then one must pass a comprehensive written and driving test to include the commercial driver's license and school bus licensing. School bus drivers also have many hours of on-going training throughout the school year.
By comparison, in 1972 I applied to be a school bus driver in Fairbanks while attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Taking my application, the dispatcher had a mechanic take me out to a bus and show me how the lights worked. Upon that indoctrination, I was informed that I had a Division of Motor Vehicle test for my school bus license in one hour, and that I should go practice driving until my test time.
Today, most pupil transportation contracts have a school bus minimum wage of $11.30 per hour. A typical school bus driver works a split shift, 175 days a year and daily hours averaging from three to six hours depending on location. The responsibilities of those men and women who transport our students daily are staggering. Their professionalism is equally impressive.
Oh, by the way, Mr. Clark's article omitted the fact that HB 259 eliminates Alaska's school bus driver minimum wage.
I, too, look forward to the debate regarding pupil transportation's future. It is important that relevant and complete information is available and all impacted parties are able to participate. In closing, I would like to remind all that we can pay for safe pupil transportation up front, or pay much more for the lack of it afterward.
Tom Hyatt is the Alaska area manager for Laidlaw Education Services, a national pupil transportation company which provides school transportation to districts throughout Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula.
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