Citing costs, D97 weighs axing elementary school buses

Cost savings could total more than $200K, officials say

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

In an attempt to control spending, the District 97 Board of Education is considering significant changes to its bus service, including the possibility of eliminating bus transportation for elementary school students or making families pay for the service. The changes would not apply to special education bus routes. 

During a March 13 regular meeting, board members took up a staff recommendation to consider a series of options that district officials estimate could result in more than $200,000 a year in cost savings. That's money, district officials argue, that could be redirected to better uses or added to the fund balance. 

Currently, the district transports 535 elementary and 493 middle school students each day on 14 buses, although the daily count varies depending on the weather, according to officials. The students qualify for the service because they either live near any of 14 crossings that were deemed hazardous 20 years ago or live more than 1.5 miles from their schools — a distance set by the state.  

The district also transports students who may not be signed up for the service if there's space available on the buses. 

According to Alicia Evans, the district's outgoing assistant superintendent for finance and operations, the district has spent $2 million over the last four years on regular bus service. Throughout that time, the district has contracted with Bellwood-based Lakeview Bus Company. 

This year, cost of the service increased by nearly 30 percent, going from $405,315 in 2017 to $522,386 in 2018. In each of the two years prior to 2017, the costs averaged $537,141.

According to Edulog Consulting, an education transportation consulting firm that the board tapped to conduct a transportation audit, those costs could be reduced by at least half if the district eliminated elementary school buses. 

The reduction would not be unique. Neither District 90 in River Forest and nor Oak Park and River Forest High School provide bus service for students. 

Busing for elementary school students is primarily the result of 14 hazardous crossings throughout Oak Park, which the district established in 1997. 

According to Edulog's analysis, those hazardous crossings have since been retrofitted with signal lights and clearly marked pedestrian walkways, and should no longer be considered hazardous. 

"Without these hazards, no elementary school students would qualify for busing," according to the Edulog audit. Some middle-school students, however, would still qualify for bus service due to living more than 1.5 miles from their schools.  

Edulog estimated that if the district eliminated elementary busing, but maintained eight buses for middle-school students while adjusting bell times, it would shave $224,000 off the roughly $522,000 it currently pays on transportation. 

If the district also adjusted the middle-school boundaries, in addition to changing bell times, it could save $298,000 and would only need six buses for transporting middle-school students. 

The idea of adjusting middle-school bell times was met with some confusion by D97 Supt. Carol Kelley, who wasn't immediately sold on the measure. 

Evans added that if the district decided to continue busing elementary students, it should consider charging families for the service. 

On March 13, board members said they would actively consider Evans' recommendations, although they conceded they're working under the gun. The district's contract with Lakeview expires in June, so the board decided to start the bidding process on a new contract for the 2018-19 school year.

Completed bids should come before the board for approval next month. Board members grappled with how they would communicate their plans to the public, with Evans noting that she's already been contacted by frustrated parents who have gotten wind of the possible cuts. 

"I think we need to engage [the community] in the process and why this is the right thing to do," said board member Rupa Datta. "We need to explain why this is the right thing to do." 

Evans said exploring the possible changes in transportation funding is part of a much larger effort by the district to exert more discipline in its spending practices.

"If the decision is that we'll spend $500,000 in transportation this year, then it is what it is," she said, "but next year, people should understand that we're going to move forward with some changes." 

The school board could make a final decision about its transportation plan late next month after they've seen bids from different bus companies. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

Reader Comments

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Brian Slowiak  

Posted: March 26th, 2018 4:05 PM

D97 is the educational industrial complex that co runs Oak Park.

PJ Atlas  

Posted: March 25th, 2018 5:34 PM

D97 is corrupt.

Wesley MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 24th, 2018 8:43 AM

A great community not only provides what is required of them, but it also provides services that set it apart from the rest. It's a mistake to get rid of bus service for our kids. It lessens us, and we are better than tha

Regina Ripley  

Posted: March 22nd, 2018 12:40 PM

Has D97 communicated with the Village and the police department to determine if the streets can handle thousands of more cars on the road at very specific times? Has the district contacted schools to determine if they can handle a drop off line with an addition of hundreds of more cars? Do they have the staff and volunteers to assist with that? What is the increased cost to the village, the police department, to the schools to manage this? Can we estimate the increased cost to families to miss work or hire sitters/drivers to get their kids to and from school? What is the cost for the village to lose one of our most elemental goals -- integration and diversity?

Krissy Bee  

Posted: March 22nd, 2018 11:04 AM

The fact that this is even up for debate demonstrates the tone deaf, poor deductive reasoning of the board. Perhaps they have forgotten that we had an abduction and assault of a female student at Brooks this year? Reducing the supports for children to and from school is thoughtless at best, dangerous at worst. Do we want first graders walking a mile and a half to school, or longer if they have to adjust for busy intersections? Do we want the next abduction to be an 8 year old who was previously bussed? What are you people even thinking? Perhaps we could save money by a) cutting some of the bloated administrative positions which have been added unnecessarily to deal with such a small school district b) stop purchasing exorbitantly-priced teaching plans and then not implementing them for years and/or c) stop giving kids the latest greatest tech rollout and instead make sure they can get to and from school safely in the first place. My family doesn't even use bussing and I know how stupid and myopic this proposal is.

Andrew Pat  

Posted: March 22nd, 2018 9:11 AM

I don't have a kid who rides the bus, but I do commute in OP and I don't mind paying the whatever nominal cost it is to not have hundreds more cars on the road during rush hour.

Scott Drazler from Arts District  

Posted: March 22nd, 2018 8:50 AM

1. How much did this study cost. 2. Who ordered it. Why. I would look in to who friend this is. Heads should be rolling. 3. Bus service was cited in last years referenda.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 22nd, 2018 12:02 AM

The first shot of the "we need another referendum" campaign has just been fired.

Ruth Lazarus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2018 4:12 PM

I'd also encourage everyone to read the report to understand what a terrible proposal it is, with no awareness of our community, history, or needs, and how misguided hiring this company was. Another gem that jumps out is the premise that rush hour is over by time children are going to school. What? The company itself has many, many complaints about it's "toxic work environment", and clearly places profits above all else, including child safety and common sense. I'm all for D97 cutting waste, but here is an unfortunate example of money wasted.

Jeanine Pedersen  

Posted: March 21st, 2018 3:16 PM

I urge readers to read the report for themselves. Once you get past the typos, poor grammar and spelling errors you can thoroughly enjoy such gems as crossing the expressway at Austin would be a safe walking route, rename walking distance to zone of parental liability and thereby move responsibility to the parents. Why they hired a group out of Missoula, MT and didn't bother meeting with the traffic commission at the Village is beyond me. But you know meeting with the Village would have been free, and D97 and Dr. Kelley do their consultants.

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