Hidden Savings in Your Bus Budget

by Ruth Newby

Have budget cuts gone way past meat to bone? Across the country, limited state funds are forcing school districts to make tough choices. When you’re scrambling to avoid cutting back on learning support, do not overlook ways to cut costs and increase efficiency in your school transportation system. It’s quite doable without degrading safety.

School transportation industry statistics show the annual average costs for operating and maintaining a single school bus range from $34,000 to $38,000. Operating a school bus fleet at high efficiency has a real impact on the dollars saved for a school district and the reliability of transportation service to students.

TransPar Group, a private school transportation management firm, does not own or operate school buses but has conducted transportation audits for more than 30 school districts, including New York City and Kansas City, Mo.

Probing Questions
When you begin to comprehensively examine your school transportation system, ask the following key questions. If someone in your district doesn’t know the answers, consider it an early warning signal.

* How much do we need to save from the transportation program this year?
Cutting costs is essentially balancing needs versus wants. Depending on the school district’s fiscal situation, you will find a range of savings alternatives--from improved routing to program accountability, parent pay programs and alternate bell times. On average, audits find systems can operate 20 percent more efficiently.

* How much does our transportation director think we can save this year?
The director’s budget estimate should include specific moves that can be evaluated and measured. Most transportation directors are service-oriented and consequently run their departments at the beck and call of all constituencies. It can be difficult to improve efficiency and realize savings when operating under the same policies and guidelines for years on end. Is your director thinking outside the box or simply following past practices?

The initial target for improved efficiency should be a 5 to 7 percent reduction in costs regardless of changes in enrollment or number of facilities. This should not always come from the fleet replacement fund.

* When did we last measure bus routing in terms of actual capacity and time utilization?
A comprehensive review should be conducted every year. Does your district create a new routing plan each year or simply adjust last year’s routes?

* By what percentage can we realistically increase the productivity of our vehicles?
The national average indicates a 20 percent productivity increase is achievable in relation to costs and performance standards. Remember to measure actual usage and not what is planned, which is quite different.

* If we increase productivity, where do the savings come from?
In most cases, savings should directly correspond to the efficiency gained. Of course, some costs are fixed. Others, such as wages, fuel, maintenance, insurance and licensing, are variable and comprise 80 percent of total costs. From a longer-term standpoint, eliminating buses will reduce fleet replacement needs and lower future capital costs.

* How many preventable accidents do we have per 100,000 miles?
Your transportation director should know. One accident is too many, but they do happen. An acceptable ratio would be one preventable accident for every 100,000 miles of busing. When you improve safety, you save money.

* What percentages of our student pickups and arrivals are on time?
If the district is recording on-time performance at less than 99 percent, a problem exists. This is a no-tolerance area regardless of the size or the landscape of the school district.

* How many children are transported per bus?
Effective pupil-to-bus ratio should average at least 100 pupils on a double-route, two-tier bus system. Actual capacity use must be measured with 80 percent of rated capacity as a goal.

* What is our maintenance cost per mile?
The standard industry maintenance cost per mile (labor, parts and supplies but not including fuel) is 25 cents.

* What is our driver turnover rate?
If you are replacing more than 20 percent of your drivers annually, there is a considerable hidden cost waiting to be reduced. What is the cause?

* Are district transportation policies being followed?
Abuses of program-eligibility or walk-distance policies waste district money.

Requesting Feedback
Don’t stop with these 11 questions. Find out how long it’s been since your transportation system was analyzed from top to bottom--from every crucial aspect (safety, human resources, maintenance, fleet, customer service and operations to cost control). Been more than three years? Ask for a review now.

Effective communication is the shoehorn to making your proposed system reforms fit with your district. Present your recommendations from the big-picture viewpoint. Many cost-saving proposals are never adopted because no one clearly explained how the changes would improve the entire system.

School buses across America transport 24 million students more than 4 billion miles each year, making 10 billion student trips with students entering or exiting the buses 20 billion times. It’s worth the effort--in lower costs and increased customer satisfaction--to find the inefficiencies in your school bus system. Dare to explore those hidden savings.

Ruth Newby is president of TransPar Group, 18 S.W. 3rd St., Suite 200, Lee’s Summit, MO 64063. E-mail: