Heading into the holiday season, it’s time to give thanks that the pupil transportation industry continues to provide safe and efficient service in spite of the funding difficulties it has faced over the past several years.
That’s not to say that there aren’t big challenges out there. As Editor Steve Hirano mentions in his survey (beginning on pg. 22), transportation managers identify budget problems and driver shortages as their main challenges these days.
As you know, “budget problems” can carve a wide swath through a transportation program, afflicting all sorts of operational programs and hobbling capital investment. What does that translate into? It could mean cutting service, implementing parent-pay programs, operating and maintaining buses that are past their prime, postponing the purchase of new buses or delaying the construction of a new transportation facility, among other things.
Beating the budget blues
All of these holdbacks have short- and long-term implications — on the negative side.
We don’t want to see service cut, because that means more children will be walking, bicycling or riding with friends or relatives to school, invoking higher risks to their safety. We’ve talked about this on many occasions. You can’t put a dollar figure on safety, but that’s what school boards do when they curtail service, either by eliminating routes, extending walking distances or canceling bus service for athletic programs.
Parent-pay programs have become popular over the past few years. Requiring parents to subsidize their children’s bus transportation seems to make sense in a budget-strapped world, but it does have a major weakness — parents who can’t or won’t pay for this service are in the unenviable position of having to find alternative transportation for their children. As I mentioned earlier, any other route to school is more dangerous than riding a school bus.
The other part of the equation is on the capital investment side. Delaying the purchase of new buses has the effect of keeping older buses in service. This is fine if the older buses are in great shape, but that’s not often the case. What happens is that these buses break down more often — requiring expensive road calls — and require more repair than their younger cousins. In addition, they often don’t have the full complement of safety equipment that newer buses have. Any way you look at it, keeping old buses in service is not a cost-effective solution.
Beyond the negative impact of postponing bus replacement, there’s also a price to be paid for delaying the construction of new facilities. How many of you despair over the state of your bus yard? If you’re not happy with it, it’s a good bet that your drivers, mechanics and office staff aren’t happy either.
Start pushing the rock
So what needs to be done? You’ve got to keep rolling the rock up the hill, even if it slides back a few feet. It might not happen this year, but soon, I’m sure, your school board is going to loosen its purse strings. You need to be the first in line to make your case that transportation is a key ally to the classroom and deserves additional funding.
In many areas, the pendulum is starting to swing back toward increased educational support. The people in the bus yard have been patiently waiting for this occasion. Don’t let this opportunity slip by. Start now and don’t give up.