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Santa Rosa school district to discuss bus options

(FILE PHOTO) Doyle Park Elementary School principal Kaesa Enemark rallies her charges to take cover under an awning as they wait for a bus after school during a downpour, Friday Jan. 20, 2012 (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

JAMIE HANSEN , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Santa Rosa City Schools board Wednesday will take a first look at a study outlining the ways it could save money on student transportation, an aspect of public education that many school officials agree is chronically underfunded.

The most significant savings would come from the district joining the West County Transportation Agency, a joint-powers authority serving 16 school districts from Santa Rosa to the coast, according to the draft study, conducted by Pupil Transportation Information and commissioned by the board in May.

Doing so could save the district $1 to $1.5 million in year two of an agreement, the study says. The district currently spends about $5.2 million annually on transportation.

The report also looked at ways to streamline the district’s current contract with the international school bus company First Student and examined what would be involved in starting an in-house transportation program.

The district’s current contract with First Student expires in 2018 but could be terminated early if the school board decides it is in the district’s best interest, said Assistant Superintendent Steve Eichman.

“We’re trying to see if there’s things the district can do to provide transportation in a more cost-effective and efficient way,” he said.

Santa Rosa City Schools isn’t the only district trying to reduce its transportation costs, said Mike Rea, executive director of the West County Transportation Agency and chapter president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials.

The amount of money alloted for student transportation has declined steadily since the late 1970s and took a significant hit during the recession, Rea said. As a result, districts are currently compensated by the state for an average of about 35 percent of their actual transportation costs, he said.

At the same time, they are required by law to provide transportation for their special education students.

To do so, they must essentially take money that would otherwise be spent on classroom education to pay for transportation, he said.

About one-fifth of Santa Rosa City Schools’ transportation budget is currently paid for by dedicated transportation funds.

Santa Rosa City Schools first inquired about joining the West County Transportation Agency in late 2012, prompting the agency to conduct a preliminary analysis. They then conducted a much more detailed one in early November 2014, Rea said.

“That analysis really shows there could be some considerable savings for Santa Rosa City School as well as savings for our existing member school districts,” Rea said.

Taking on Santa Rosa City Schools would essentially double the number of routes the agency provides.

In order for the district to join the agency in time for the 2016-17 school year, the board would have to commit by this November, he said. That would provide the agency time to order the additional school buses it would need to provide the service.

But while Santa Rosa City Schools is aware of that deadline, it is moving forward on its own timeline, Eichman said.

“In my experience, school boards make a decision when they have all the information they want and need,” he said.

Eichman expects the ad-hoc committee to meet and weigh in on the draft report soon and for a final version of the study to come before the board in August.

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.