ELPS Bussing Costs // Mike Conlin

EAST LANSING PUBLIC SCHOOL’S BUSSING COSTS

The recent controversy about the transition plans associated with ELPS implementing their elementary school reconfiguration made me curious about ELPS’s bussing costs.

I was shocked to find that ELPS spent $1,171,207 on student transportation in academic year 2017-18.  The graph below shows that this is a 61% ($443,478) increase in ELPS’s student transportation costs over the past eleven years.  Note that contracting out ELPD’s general education bussing to Dean Transportation, through the Ingham Intermediate School District (ISD), beginning in 2012-13 did NOT slow down the rising costs.  Also note that transportation costs increased from $836,048 in 2011-12 to $905,263 in 2012-13; although former Superintendent Chapin claimed, using faulty calculations, that the district would save at least $100,000 in transportation costs by outsourcing to Dean Transportation.

Chart Showing ELPS Transportation costs

In contrast, the overall transportation costs for the other eleven districts in the Ingham ISD increased by less than 1% from 2007-08 to 2016-17.  If ELPS had experienced a similar change in transportation costs, they would be able to afford five more teachers.

Why have ELPS’s transportation costs increased so dramatically relative to other districts in the ISD? 

It is unlikely that simply outsourcing to Dean Transportation explains the dramatic growth for two reasons.  First, the increases began prior to 2012-13 and second, Dean provides general education transportation to three other districts in Ingham ISD and none experienced cost increases similar to ELPS.  (I want to emphasize that Dean Transportation is NOT the culprit in this situation.  Dean Transportation has a reputation as a firm with a social conscience that is active in many community activities.  That said, Dean Transportation is a profit maximizing firm that responds to incentives.)  It is also unlikely that ELPS’s 2014 reconfiguration to 5 elementary schools explains the dramatic growth because transportation costs initially decreased after the reconfiguration – perhaps due to an increase in walkability associated with the reconfiguration.

A likely explanation is that ELPS is not administering the bussing efficiently and this mismanagement is increasing bussing costs.  My kids stood at a nonexistent bus stop waiting for a bus that never came on the first day of school in 2012-13, when Dean first took over, because (I was told that ) ELPS provided Dean Transportation outdated information on the bus stop location.  Every year there are bus route adjustments due to bus capacity issues even though ELPS argued that a major benefit of outsourcing bussing was Dean’s ability to use student resident information to efficiently construct bus routes and bus stop locations.

What should be done to reduce transportation costs?  

ELPS should have individuals with appropriate training analyze student transportation and quantify the tradeoffs associated with different alternatives.  What should not be done is have a committee comprised of local politicians, school board members, lawyers, education consultants and education academics, who have no training or expertise in transportation issues, evaluate whether ELPS should bring general education transportation back in house.  ELPS has done this song and dance before when they closed Red Cedar Elementary School without any credible analysis, invested $11M in renovating Red Cedar without any credible analysis and now plan to provide undetermined programming in Red Cedar without any credible analysis.  

Allowing experts to provide a credible analysis of the tradeoffs associated with bussing might allow ELPS to use more of their general funds on teachers, parapros, and other labor that work directly with the kids.

Mike Conlin

2 thoughts on “ELPS Bussing Costs // Mike Conlin”

  1. Mike, that’s something I was worried about back when I ran for the board in 2012. At that time I obtained (via a stubbornly-resisted FOIA) the transportation budget going back to 2000-2001. My numbers that overlap yours are slightly different, but I may not have interpreted the documents correctly.

    It may interest readers to know that transportation costs hovered in the $600,000 range until the odd K-4, 5-6, 7-8 configuration kicked in. I still shake my head when I think of my daughter having to take a 40-minute bus ride to get from Pinecrest to Whitehills.

    The contract could be defensible if one considers the state of the bus fleet. At the time it was by all accounts falling apart. Contracting out may have been cheaper than buying a new fleet.

    In any event, anything we save here is “found money” and would go right into the classroom. From my own observations, I think we could do a lot better in terms reducing costs and transit time. Some people may remember that I’m in the Air National Guard and I’ve now taken every planning course the Air Force has to offer, so I would be happy to apply my logistical expertise.

  2. Hi Alec,
    My numbers differ from yours because you use budgeted amounts and I use how much the districts actual spent. You don’t have to deal with a “stubbornly-resisted FOIA” to obtain actual money spent. The annual school district level revenues and expenditures can be downloaded from https://www.mischooldata.org/Other2/DataFiles/FinancialInformation/HistoricalFinancialReports.aspx. I believe the transportation cost variable is 27x and is described as expenditures related to “Activities concerned with the conveyance of pupils to and from school, as provided by state law. It includes trips between home and school or trips to school activities. Includes all other direct costs related to pupil transportation, i.e., physical exams, uniforms, school bus driver licenses, awards, bus monitors, etc.” Based on discussions with the MI Dept of Education, my understanding is that it does not necessarily include capital costs which do not have to come out of the district’s general fund. Many MI districts that do not outsource bussing have passed referenda involving a school bus millage which can be used for school bus purchases. In addition, a recent proposed bill ( http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(vyriu0djjvficyptzzmaeb5v))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=2017-SB-0384 ) would allow sinking fund money to be used for school bus purchases. In terms of your “Contracting out may have been cheaper than buying a new fleet” comment when referring to how bad the state of the bus fleet, it is important to understand that using a school bus millage (or sinking fund millage) to pay for bus purchases does not affect the general fund (other than by lowering the amount of general funds paid for maintenance and gas). As you know, the general fund is the pot that pays for teachers and other labor. Obviously, the cost of capital is going to factor into the price when a district contracts out for bussing. I should also mention that if the large growth in expenditures prior to 2012-13 was due to deterioration of the bus fleet, then expenditures on transportation should be expected to decrease once ELPS outsourced to Dean. It is nice of you to offer your logistical expertise but I would like the district to get either an experienced transportation engineer in the private sector with 20 years of experience or a crusty-old professor with 20 years of expertise in this area to do a couple of hours of pro-bono work to figure things out. They can play chess in this area while most of the rest of us are playing checkers.

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