DOE working on prioritizing school bus routes

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After lots of estimating the Department of Education now knows it is exactly $16 million short for school buses and there is already disagreement about what factors are most important in determining which routes get cut.

The Department of Education spends more than $70 million a year on school buses. Some lawmakers across the street at the State Capitol say that's way too much and the system is broken. Fixing it however is much tougher.

A total of 44,000 kids ride the school bus in Hawaii at a cost $80,000 per bus.  State lawmakers are so adamant on bringing that cost down they prohibited the DOE from transferring general funds to transportation.

"We do not have the ability to look under the cushions here and there to look for spare coins to put into student transportation," said Randy Moore, Department of Education Assistant Superintendent.

The DOE has various factors to prioritize routes, including safety, distance from schools, number of riders, public transportation alternatives, percentage of student riders qualified for free meals, cost and elementary versus secondary students, which got a lot of discussion.

"I'm reasonably confident we're going to find a solution certainly for that segment of the population which is a critical segment of the population. I'm not saying the high school aren't critical but when we prioritize we're not going to be asking our elementary school kids to be riding a public bus," said Don Horner, Board of Education Chair.

"Although I appreciate the notion of elementary schools the whole notion of prioritization is probably going to be affected on each individual situation so I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done," said Wesley Lo, Board of Education Member. "We need to be careful about making broad characterizations. I think every place has a little bit different issue."

"On Kauai we just have really no safe routes to schools," said Nancy Budd, Board of Education Member.

Administrators say you can't make a blanket statement to save elementary students over high school students.  For example there is an elementary school in Wailuku with nearly 1,000 students and only 18 of them ride the bus.  That route would theoretically be cut before others.

"This is thornier than a blanket, here is the decision making matrix," said Moore. "It's more challenging than just applying a rule."

The other problem is even if routes are cut the DOE will still have to pay bus companies up to $18,000 a year just to sit in idle.  The DOE is trying to negotiate with contractors to reduce costs.

"Every contractor has a different pair of shoes on and we can't tell whose shoes have room and whose do not," said Moore.

Students may need those walking shoes as well.

There will be another school board meeting in two weeks to talk in greater detail the possible solutions and potential areas to cut.

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