James Blue is general manager of  School Bus Fleet .

James Blue is general manager of School Bus Fleet.

In lean years for education funding — which is starting to seem like every year — school districts typically look for ways to run an even tighter ship.

When it comes to budget cuts, transportation is often a target. But innovative directors have often found ways to cut costs without sacrificing bus service.

For example, some districts have saved millions of dollars per year by restructuring their school bell times. With buses serving schools on a multi-tiered system, more students can be transported with fewer buses.

There are many other ways to increase transportation efficiency, and thereby reduce expenses. But for some districts, it may seem that they’ve already implemented all options for optimizing efficiency.

Many districts have had success in reducing transportation costs by contracting out some or all of their school bus service. On the other hand, many other districts will tell you that they can run a more cost-effective operation in-house.

I’m not here to tell you whether outsourcing school bus service is a good fit for your district. But I will suggest that this option appears to have been utilized by a growing number of districts. And I have data to back up that assertion.

In our January 2012 issue (pg. 60), we ran an editorial that showed growth in the outsourcing of school busing. So what has happened in the three years since then?

First, some background information: Each year, SBF collects U.S. school transportation data (see pg. 29 in our 2015 Fact Book), which breaks down most states’ school buses by how many are owned by districts, contractors or the state.

With this data, we can get an estimate of the proportion of school buses in the nation that are contractor owned, and we can compare it to previous years.

Here’s what we found in our previous editorial:
• 2007-08 school year: 25.6% contractor buses  
• 2008-09: 26.9% contractor buses  
• 2009-10: 28.1% contractor buses

Now, we’ve done the same calculations for the data we’ve compiled in the years since that editorial. Here’s what we found:
•    2010-11 school year: 28.3% contractor buses
•    2011-12: 30.0% contractor buses
•    2012-13: 34.7% contractor buses

Keep in mind that these are estimates, and they only take into account the school buses that states were able to categorize as district, contractor or state owned (some states can’t give us that breakdown). However, these percentages are useful in making year-to-year comparisons, and now they’ve shown increases in the proportion of contractor buses for six consecutive years.    

Here’s some corroborating evidence: In our previous editorial on this topic, we cited the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s 2011 Michigan School Privatization Survey, which found that 12.2% of districts in the state were using privatized bus service. That was nearly triple the 2006 rate of 4.4%.

Now, the Mackinac Center’s 2014 survey shows that 24% of Michigan districts contract out for transportation services.

Again, whether outsourcing is the best fit for any given district is a question that should be explored locally. But the numbers continue to suggest that more districts are embracing the contracting option.