School district may hire transportation consultants

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 4/18/01.

With the school district having already cut a half million dollars from its budget and facing a projected million dollar deficit, the school board discussed the idea of hiring a consultant to help them save money in transportation.

Five years ago, in 1996, the separated transportation funds for each school district were eliminated, and the state aid rolled into the general funding formula. Since then, the district has been running its transportation services at a loss.

"This is not, in my opinion, the fault of the school district or the local transportation company," said school board chairman Pat Flanders. "It's the fault of the state."

The state also changed the transportation funding, to a formula that favors the metro schools, said superintendent Howard Caldwell.

The district was approached by transportation consultant Tom Watson to look at savings in transportation costs. Watson, who has done work for 17 school districts, would look for savings in the bus routes and the district's contract.

The school has a checkered history of hiring consultants in the past, the board members noted. "You wonder if the consulting fee is money well spent or not," said Flanders.

Originally, Watson proposed a fee between $6,000 and $9,000, but would also work for a percentage of the savings. "Unless it can be implemented and acted out (by our contractor),"' said superintendent Howard Caldwell, "there's no savings."

The school district had a balance of $234,000 when the separate transportation fund was eliminated in 1996. The balance in this fund was due to a special levy the school district applied, said Caldwell. This money was rolled into the general fund.

According to Watson's analysis of the school district's finances, the last time the school district had an operating balance for transportation was in 1996-97. At that time, the district had nearly $300,000 in a transportation balance, but that will be reduced by four years of deficits to an $88,000 balance at the end of the year. Watson projects the school's transportation funds will be in the red by June 2002.

Phyllis Nielsen, owner of Paynesville Motor and Transfer, attended the meeting and stated that her preference would be a consultant that has transportation experience.

Changing the routes would mean longer rides for the students. "It would be a decline of service," she said. "Right now, I don't feel there are buses out there with too few students."

The board's options are to hire Watson, hire a different consultant, or to look for savings themselves. The board asked Nielsen to make suggestions of other transportation consultants to Caldwell and directed Caldwell to check with other school districts for more names.

Board member Deb Glenz led support for hiring a transportation consultant. She argued that the board did not have the specific knowledge needed to find savings in the transportation budget. "This conversation exemplifies why we need a consultant," she said. "We don't have a clue."

The time needed to implement changes for next year, when the district may need to make more cuts, requires a decision to be made soon. "If we're taking all the money from the classroom and putting it in busing," asked Glenz, "what's the point of hauling (kids to school)?"

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