Ongoing Series { Investigating Hawaii's rising school bus costs.

Taken For A Ride: Fewer Players, Bigger Budgets

flickr: Rosa Say

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on Hawaii's runaway school bus costs. Read other articles on the topic.

For the last four years, Hawaii taxpayers have paid whatever price school bus contractors asked of the Department of Education.

That's because in 2008, the state's 12 school bus companies stopped bidding against one another for contracts, leaving the district with only three options: negotiate the bids, reject them or accept them.

It chose to accept them all.

The result is a $72 million budget this year for services that just six years ago cost only $34 million.

It wasn't always this way. Competition used to thrive among dozens of small mom-and-pop operations throughout the state.

The state's school bus industry had humble beginnings in the 1940s, when plantation owners provided transportation to and from school for their workers' children.

By 1973, according to Hawaii School Bus Association spokesman and lobbyist John Radcliffe, there were about 50 bus companies operating in Hawaii. And budget records from the Department of Education show that back then the state was paying about $5 million a year for transportation services. Now it splits $49 million among just a dozen operators.1

There's no history of school bus service in Hawaii. Because responsibility for overseeing student transportation changed hands several times over the last four decades, the school district's records are spotty. Most of the bus contractors would not talk about it.

Akita Enterprises on Kauai is one of the few that has survived more than six decades of change. CEO Lindy Akita, 82, has worked in the school bus industry since 1948, a year after his father started Akita Enterprises. He helped piece together the following history of the Hawaii school bus business.

Trucks Were Used to Transport Kids

"At the time there were no 'school buses,'" he told Civil Beat. "There were five plantations on the west side where I live, and they were transporting kids to and from school in these stick trucks."

The trucks were primitive, he said, with no seats, no rear gate and only a stick fence to keep youngsters from falling over the sides.

"We were like cattle in the back," Akita said. "Holding onto each other and holding onto the fence. It was not safe."

Some of the plantations wanted safer transportation for the kids, so Akita's father invested in two Chevy chassis and converted them into buses, with seats and steps in the back. Other entrepreneurial spirits all over the state got into the business under similar circumstances.

"At one time, there were 47 different operations in the state transporting school students," he said.

Based on other interviews with Radcliffe and another former contractor, that peak in the number of companies occurred in the early 1970s.

Some charged riders, and some didn't. Some counties subsidized the cost, and others didn't, according to newspaper archives from the 1950s.

Most important, some had less stringent safety codes than others, which at times resulted in scenarios that would be comical had they not endangered the lives of children. Two school bus drivers for one of the numerous Maui contractors in 1961 were suspended for consuming alcohol while chauffeuring students, according to a Honolulu Advertiser article dated Feb. 4 that year. Police also discovered the drivers had served beer to students, and allowed adolescents to practice driving the bus with fellow students on board.

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