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

Taken for a Ride: 17,000 Students Could Be Without School Buses Next Year

Katherine Poythress/Civil Beat

Hawaii Department of Education officials say they would have to end school bus service on Oahu if the Legislature doesn't give them millions of dollars even beyond what the governor is seeking for school bus transportation next year.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has requested $54 million for bus transportation costs next year. But that's $17 million shy of what the department says it needs in order to continue providing student transportation at the current level next year.

If they don't get all the money, district officials say they will have to eliminate regular school bus service on Oahu, leaving 17,000 kids who now ride the bus scrambling to find other transportation.

"Some of those 17,000 kids will take the city bus," said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services. "Some of those, their parents will take them. Some will find a way to carpool. Some of them conceivably will walk or ride a bicycle. And some of them — we hope very few — simply won't go."

The Hawaii Department of Education is already under pressure from the Legislature to reduce costs, not increase them. Transportation costs have skyrocketed in recent years, up from about $34 million a year in 2005 to $75 million a year in 2012.

Civil Beat has been examining the rising costs in its series, Taken for a Ride, and found that costs climbed dramatically when bus contractors abruptly stopped competing against each other. The school district chose to pay whatever price the companies asked to keep bus service going.

Lawmakers have been pressing district officials to find ways to bring costs down, including coming up with recommendations on how to increase competition. So far, school officials have been at a loss as to how to encourage more bidders, an attitude that has frustrated key education legislators.

In a report to the Legislature earlier this year about school bus costs, the department estimated it could save about $15 million per year by eliminating the service on the most populous island.

But the state might not actually save that much right away, Moore said, because ending contracts with school bus companies comes at a price.

"The contracts provide for compensation in the event of early termination, and we're not certain what the amount would be," Moore said. The companies affected would need to calculate their claims and submit them to the school district. He estimated earlier this year that it would not exceed $7.3 million.

Savings aside, if the school district does terminate those contracts, about 17,000 students on Oahu would have to find an alternative way to get to school.

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