NEW ULM - Could District 88 save on busing?
It is one question being asked, as budget planning for next year gets under way.
Because of the school district's geography, busing costs here traditionally run high.
The buses must cross a river, which can only be done at specific points.
The current, two-year busing contract includes a provision for a 2 percent increase next year and a 1 percent increase the year after next.
A "fuel escalator" is applied in addition to these contracted increases. The fuel escalator, roughly, factors in the current fuel price.
The busing contract has been described as typical of its kind.
In recognition of current economic conditions, New Ulm Bus Lines, the company that holds this contract, earlier this month presented a concept of modifying the contracted rates.
In exchange for an extension, in terms of the number of years, of the contract, the company may be willing to renegotiate the increase rates, a company official told the District 88 Transportation Team.
The Transportation Team is an advisory committee to the School Board.
In return for including language that would expend the contract for an extra three years following the current two, next year's rate increase could be reduced to 1 percent; and the increase for 2011-12 would be zero.
The fuel escalator would remain.
The district will consider the proposal, officials said. It must review bid law language and attorney interpretations, before negotiating any change.
Among other things, the conversation has re-activated some questions about ways of cutting transportation costs.
Cutting these costs further could be difficult, according to Superintendent Harold Remme,
The district has not reduced a route in three or four years, Remme says, adding that cutting one route would increase road time for another four routes.
Travel times of an hour and a half are unacceptable to many.
Some students on longer routes already spend up to an hour and 10 minutes on the road.
"We cannot control where people live," Remme notes.
School districts are legally obligated to provide an adequate number of seats on buses to accommodate all potential riders along a route - whether these students choose to ride the bus or not.
Therefore, a public perception that some buses are running half empty can be true; but not much can be done about that.
Busing in town is already limited to students living more than 2 miles away from school.
A shuttle service among school sites is available for those students who choose to catch the bus at the site nearest to their home. In some cases, that site is still nearly 2 miles away.
In 2008, District 88 spent $723 per student on busing, compared to a state average of $567 per student, according to the latest audit by LarsonAllen.
In 2009, as fuel costs fell, the district spent somewhat less on transportation, $715 per student. Roughly, that amounted to a transportation budget of $1.7 million. The 2009 state numbers were unavailable at the time of the audit report.
Auditors say comparable costs have been the norm for districts with this kind of layout - and for districts that are contracting for services, rather than running their own fleets.
While paying more for busing, on the flip side, these districts enjoy newer fleets, the auditors said.