Board of Education will make final decision on pupil transportation

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Tuesday, May 17, 2016 9:43pm
  • News

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District administrators are proposing route revisions that would cut between six and seven buses on the southern Kenai Peninsula, stagger start times and move to a two-tier system at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

Administrators are also recommending severing ties with First Student, the current transportation vendor for the school district, whose contract is up at the end of the current school year. Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones announced during two recent public meetings held in Homer and Ninilchik that the Board of Education will be handed the decision during the next regularly scheduled meeting on June 6. The changes are a result of static state funding, potential expansion of special education routes and inflation, which combined as projected will lead to deficit spending by the 2018 fiscal year.

It is a possibility the board could decide to cover any deficit by transferring money from the general fund and make no changes to the current schedules, Jones said.

“They will be making the decision that either they are going to spend more money on transportation or not,” Jones said. “I mean, when you look at it you have nine board members that are spread across the (Kenai) Peninsula, so it’s a matter of what the majority of those people think or feel is where we are going to go. So, we do know that with the budget cuts we have been making the last three or four years, they do, are wanting to keep the classroom as intact as you can keep it.”

Lisa Boone, whose student attends Chapman School, attended the second public meeting Thursday, which was held at Ninilchik School. She said she was concerned the school district hadn’t exhausted or thoroughly examined other options.

“I mean, I agree with him that we want every dollar in the classroom, I’m just concerned that … there needs to be some other options before we say that tier one and tier two are our only options,” Boone said.

She, among other parents in attendance, wondered how changing start and end times would affect their children’s access to extracurricular activities.

“Even a matter of them getting out 15-20 minutes later will negate them from being able to do things like swimming and dance,” Boone said. “There are not many opportunities in the area anyway.”

Boone and others expressed some concern for what would happen to after-school care for students with working parents if routes and drop-off times change. Many said they believed that to be purely a parental issue.

Debbie Cary, co-owner of the Inlet View Restaurant and Bar in Ninilchik who works for Project GRAD at Ninilchik School, said she views the situation as best addressed if it is collectively addressed.

“The bottom line is it’s a community problem, and it’s a community problem created because of a financial need, and it’s a financial need in two directions because we are going to have, parents are going to have a financial need to have day care, because the district has a financial need to cut costs on busing,” Cary said.

It is pertinent to identify the challenges that may arise for different populations in the community, and maybe there would be ways to resolve issues if people work closely together, she said.

School district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said the school district and board is proposing the changes in preparation for and anticipation of large hits to education funding in upcoming years.

“Education did not take the big hit financially to our revenues that is expected that is going to come down the line for the next few years,” she said. “The school board is holding that tension, that very real tension that is happening in our state.”

Ninilchik School Principal Jeff Ambrosier said if start times are differed at his school as a way to keep teachers with students, he is willing to see some changes.

“We have a need to transport students,” Ambrosier said. “We have a certain obligation to do that, but if we can do it for less money, and that puts more money back into the classroom, that’s where my vote’s going to be.”

In the next two years, a variety of decreases in revenue, and increases in costs will be affecting the school district.

The state’s pupil transportation grant allocations will no longer include annual increases to offset inflation following the current school year.

Compounding the cuts are changes in student population.

More students that qualify as having intensive needs with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, are entering the school district, and the number of regular education students is decreasing, Jones said.

School buses are contracted on a per-day basis. Most routes on the Kenai Peninsula are on a one-tier system, which is when one bus is sent to one school in the morning, and one in the afternoon. A two-tier system is when one bus makes two trips in the morning and two in the afternoon.

By moving to a two-tier system, the number of school buses needed on a daily basis will be reduced, Jones said. For that possibility, school start times would have to shift, some by as much as an hour. Other options, such as having a four-day school week, were considered, but the cost savings were not as much as moving to the two-tier system, and would not offset increasing costs and decreasing revenues, Jones said.

At the end of the current fiscal year, the state will no longer fund cost increases due to inflation through the pupil transportation grant, Jones said. If the school district were to maintain the current number of buses, 56 regular education and 20 special education, revenues would be short nearly $140,000 next year, nearly $250,000 the following year, and will be more than $750,000 by FY21, he said.

If two special education routes were added to accommodate the growing number of students with IEPs, the deficit next year would be nearly $400,000 next year, more than $500,000 the following year and more than $1 million by FY21, Jones said.

In recent years, First Student has been the only company responding to the school district’s Request for Proposals for transportation vendors, which is a reason prices have continued to increase, Jones said.

The school district posted an RFP in January to see what options might be available for pupil transportation when the current contract with First Students ends this year. Three bidders responded, and all would increase service costs from what is currently being paid, Jones said.

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com.

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