As we edge closer to the next millennium, school districts are reassessing their goals and objectives in the classroom as well as outside the academic arena. Related services, such as transportation, are ripe for scrutiny, especially as budget pressures continue to mount. Although many school districts have already turned to the private sector to provide transportation (as well as building and grounds maintenance and food services), many others are closely looking at outsourcing as an alternative. According to our annual contractor survey in this issue, many contractors predict increased privatization. “School districts will finally concede that contractors can run school buses for less money,” said one contractor. It’s important to remember, however, that reduced cost is only one goal. Improved service delivery is the linchpin to convincing school boards that they’re making better use of existing resources.
Qualified driver pool is key
Quality of transportation service will be directly affected by the availability of drivers. Our survey found that 71 percent of the respondents reported a driver shortage. That’s a remarkably high percentage. Judging from some of the comments drawn from the survey, many contractors are expecting the shortage to continue. When asked what they believed would be the biggest change in school transportation in the next century, some intoned the driver shortage. “Nothing new, a shortage of drivers, as usual” is how a contractor in Omaha, Neb., phrased it. Less directly, other contractors addressed the driver situation by predicting increasing student behavior problems aboard school buses. If that situation comes to pass, it will be even harder for contractors, and school districts, to find and keep good drivers. Despite the general optimism about increased privatization, some contractors hold a more gloomy outlook. They predict that financially strapped school districts will be inclined to discontinue transportation rather than outsource it. This would be harmful in several ways. First, and most importantly, it would increase the risk factors of students who would need to find other ways to get to and from school. Secondly, it would put lots of productive transportation employees out of work. Finally, it would hurt the manufacturing industry, which relies on sales volume to maintain profit levels. If volume takes a downturn, equipment manufacturers would be forced to raise prices across the board to stay in the black.
Mandatory seat belts expected
Many contractors expect — and dread — the passage of legislation mandating seat belts on all school buses. Certainly, public sentiment seems to favor some type of active restraint system on school buses, but there are many hurdles that such a system would face before being mandated by the federal government. Another trend that many respondents identified is contractor consolidation. “The larger companies gobbling up the smaller ones” was the colorful description of one contractor. Another respondent described it as a “takeover by national and multinational companies.” There’s no denying that large, aggressive school bus companies are on the prowl for acquisitions. Finally, just a few words about the response to the following survey question: “Do you use the Internet to help you with your school bus operation?” Only 18 percent of the respondents answered affirmatively. For those contractors who’ve resisted the lure of the Internet, don’t keep putting it off. There are innumerable resources that can help your company. Industry vendors, government agencies, contractor associations and, yes, industry publications, offer a wealth of information that can help to improve your program. Try it, you might like it.