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For school districts, a difficult decision: Can privatizing busing save money?

Next school year, for the first time, a private company will provide all bus service in the Williamsville Central School District.

A sharply divided Williamsville School Board earlier this month agreed to lay off the 25 bus drivers, head bus drivers and mechanics who remained in the district's transportation department.

Student Transportation of America, which already bused the vast majority of students, is taking over the district routes following a decision that even supporters described as painful. Critics said the district would not reap the benefits they expected.

"I think it's a sugar-coated death pill in a way," board member Philip S. Meyer said when the board voted to get rid of the district bus drivers.

The largest suburban district in Erie County joins Buffalo Public Schools in fully outsourcing its student busing. While that's still not common here, state education data show more than half of New York's school districts outsource some or all of their transportation services. School bus contracting also is increasingly popular in Pennsylvania.

At a time when school budgets are growing, backers say using a vendor can save districts money that's better spent on core educational needs and avoid the hassle of finding reliable bus drivers. An industry trade group said a contracted bus costs 25 percent less to operate than a district-owned bus.

"We're doing what is fiscally responsible to our community," said Thomas Maturski, Williamsville's assistant superintendent for finance.

But critics say the savings from contracting transportation are overstated. And districts that bus their own students say they benefit from having control over driver hiring and training, route scheduling and the rest of the transportation operation.

"You're not relying on somebody else to do your job, basically," said Jim Nestico, transportation supervisor for Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools, which transport 6,650 students each day on 98 home-to-school routes.

Shift to private busing 

Williamsville has contracted out at least a portion of its busing for more than 40 years, Maturski said.

By 2005, the district relied on contract buses to ferry more than half of its students between home and school, he said, a shift driven by the difficulty in hiring and keeping drivers. The district last year extended its contract with Student Transportation through 2023-24.

Williamsville schools renews contracted bus service

The company as of the current school year handled 86 percent of Williamsville's bus routes, or about 130, with district drivers handling just 21 routes.

The district budgeted $8.94 million for transportation for the current school year and $8.99 million for the next year.

An independent review of the district's transportation operations had found the district could save $500,000 if Student Transportation took over all of its busing, officials said. The district could earn more money by selling its bus fleet and leasing out its bus garage on Mill Street next to Mill Middle School, Maturski said.

Union members saw more bus operations shifted to the contractor, but the district's push to lay off its last drivers and mechanics still caught them by surprise, said Ove Overmyer, a spokesman for the regional Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000, which represents Williamsville transportation workers. Their contract was set to expire in June.

"It's like a stake through the heart," Overmyer said.

Several School Board members raised objections, saying the district loses leverage once its transportation department is fully outsourced. But supporters said the decision was required for a district straining to maintain core educational services without raising school taxes too high.

"My vote must promote the mission of our district, and keep the focus on student achievement," said board Vice President Teresa A. Leatherbarrow. The board voted 5-4 to eliminate the jobs.

Debate over savings

Contractors operate about one-third of school buses nationally, according to National School Transportation Association, a trade group.

Statewide, based on district-reported data for the 2015-16 through 2018-18 school years, about 49 percent of school districts primarily used their own transportation, about 20 percent primarily contracted transportation and about 31 percent used a mix of in-house and outsourced transportation, according to the State Education Department.

The New York School Bus Contractors Association reports 15 of the 38 districts in Erie and Niagara counties use contractors to some degree.

There's a debate over whether districts save money by using contractors.

The association pointed to a national study of the 66 largest urban school districts that found the median annual cost of a district-operated bus was nearly $69,000 while contracted buses cost $55,000 per bus – a savings of 25 percent.

Critics say districts initially save money with a private vendor, but those savings can evaporate as the vendor raises its rates.

A study by the left-leaning Keystone Research Center found that in a typical school district in Pennsylvania – where 72 percent of transportation services were contracted out in 2008, up from 62 percent in 1986 – shifting from no use of contracting to full use of contracting would raise costs by an estimated $224,000 in 2008 dollars.

Most busing kept in-house

Buffalo, the largest district in the region, relies on First Student and Metro buses to carry nearly 40,400 students each day. Buffalo in 2017-18 paid a combined $43.6 million to both.

The district has outsourced its busing since a federal court ruling in the 1970s required additional busing to desegregate the schools, spokeswoman Elena Cala said.

"The need for more bus drivers occurred," Cala said in an email. "The district had to reach out to private vendors to do the added work."

But most local districts still provide their own buses.

The rural 1,700-student Springville-Griffith Institute district has 42 bus drivers, three mechanics, a transportation supervisor and a dispatcher, said Superintendent Kimberly Moritz.

The district is projecting transportation spending will rise by $69,000 for next year, to $2.46 million. At a consultant's recommendation, the district started buying fuel jointly with the Village of Springville, studied changing its routes and agreed to get rid of two of its 10 spare buses.

"While we do definitely understand our responsibility to taxpayers, we also would rather see that work go to our local district residents than to contract transportation," Moritz said, emphasizing she was speaking for her district.

West Seneca has a full transportation department, with 116 employees, but supplements some of its bus runs with an outside contractor.

The district plans to spend $7.5 million on transportation for 2019-20, a 9.3 percent increase. It has 99 buses running each day and 23 are operated by First Student, said Jonathan Cervoni, assistant superintendent of administrative operations.

"We have found it to be a benefit to have our employees and our district responsible for transporting our students," Cervoni said.

Back in Williamsville, the School Board approved severance and extended benefits for the workers who lost their jobs, including $500 per year of service for each employee and health insurance coverage through the end of August.

The district said all members will be offered jobs by Student Transportation, with drivers given the chance to keep their routes. The district still will have final say over route scheduling and other matters, Maturski said. "We're not giving up control," he said.

Overmyer said any employees who take a job with the contractor will receive lower pay and meager benefits. A representative for Student Transportation did not respond to a message seeking comment.

"Usually school districts regret it over time," Overmyer said of outsourcing, "and I think Williamsville will probably learn the hard way."

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