Consolidate, combine, coordinate and cooperate. If you are working in school transportation management for a school district or contractor, these are words you are starting to hear on a regular basis.
As fuel prices climb and school budgets get tighter and tighter, school administrators and, in many cases, board of education members are returning from conferences using these words as a battle cry for multiple districts or carriers to share or combine their transportation services.
Oftentimes, they are so concerned about their budgets that they rush you and your department into developing a plan without considering the true impact of it. In many cases, coordinated or combined transportation plans can actually cost more due to poor or rushed planning.
If you are apprehensive about consolidation, many people will label you as an obstructionist for not sharing in their excitement. This hesitation comes from your years of experience in knowing how to prevent the domino effect that a single change to one bus or route can have on many others. People will try to downplay your concerns as unrealistic, but you know differently.
Moreover, your legitimate questions may be viewed as stumbling blocks to hold up progress. You might even hear snappy business slogans to try to quiet you, such as “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there” which, in office speak, means that you will cross that bridge alone when you get there and have to deal with the mess created by an overzealous boss or committee.
Now don’t get me wrong — I am not against saving money. If there are two neighboring districts both transporting special-needs students to the same out-of-district school, there is no reason that this type of transportation cannot be combined.
However, trying to combine or coordinate transportation programs from multiple neighboring areas will be challenging, to say the least.
Here, I will explore questions or gray areas that can come up when attempting to arrange combined transportation with neighboring districts or carriers. These issues must be definitively addressed prior to entering into a cooperative agreement, or the potential difficulties will end up right in your lap.
1. How much territory are you trying to cover?
Anytime two or three districts consider combining transportation services, you have to ensure that the concept is not one-sided.
What I mean is, the primary objective of joint transportation is to save dollars, both in payroll and fuel, for the districts. Will this be done at the expense of the students? If students have to travel out of their way to meet transfer buses or sit on a bus waiting for other buses, the quality of the students’ rides may have become second to the carrier’s desire to save money. Keep quality of service to the students as your primary goal. Try to avoid expecting to combine services in large areas that will result in additional travel time for your students.
2. How will multiple carriers communicate?
Communication must be addressed. In most cases, individual school districts and contract carriers maintain their own two-way radio frequencies for bus-to-bus and bus-to-base communications, and they maintain different telephone numbers for their business offices. This presents huge communications difficulties when coordinating the day-to-day operations of your combined transportation plan. On paper, you can agree that three buses will meet at a certain time and place daily, but when one bus doesn’t show up, the plan will collapse. How will these buses be notified if one bus is running late or has broken down, or if a student is not attending school on a particular day? The buses cannot communicate on the radio if they do not have frequencies that match.