By MICHAEL KRANSZ
Capital News Service
LANSING — The number of Michigan school districts contracting out at least a part of their transportation services increased 150 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to a think tank survey.
The survey by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland recorded 78 school districts opting for some privatized transportation services during that time, in addition to 53 already contracting out.
There are about 540 districts in the state, according to the Department of Education. And while some districts are contracting out only a portion of the service, such as employment, most are privatizing their whole bus operation, said James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the center.
Michigan School Business Officials Associate Executive Director Scott Little said the switch to privatized transportation services took off shortly after the Great Recession began in late 2007, largely as an effort to recoup money lost from declining student populations and state funding.
Around the same time, custodial services outsourcing also took off, nearly doubling from 145 districts to 259 between 2010 to 2014, according to the Mackinac Center survey.
Little said instead of cutting teachers and classes to save money, districts have turned to auxiliary services.
“The mantra is oftentimes keep the cuts away from the classroom, which oftentimes translates into cutting support services,” he said.
As buses age, maintenance costs rise, Little said. With some schools unable or unwilling to buy new vehicles, outsourcing can put that responsibility on private companies, he said.
“The buses are incredibly safe, but they’re expensive,” he said. “Generally you’re looking at a school bus that costs $75,000 and you’ve got to upkeep them to keep them safe.”
Addison Community Schools Superintendent Steven Guerra said his district was an ideal candidate for private transportation in 2012, when it made the switch.
Guerra said buses in the fleet were an average of 14 years old and the district couldn’t afford to replace them.
So, he said, the district turned to Dean Transportation, which promised six new busses on the road within five years.
In addition to a newer fleet, Dean Transportation also took on the salaries and benefits of the eight drivers previously working for the district, alleviating some budgetary strain, he said.
Dollar Bay-Tamarack City Area Schools Superintendent Jan Quarless said when his district switched in 2008, it had faced a similar problem with an older fleet.
“We made the switch primarily because we’re a smaller school and we recognized we had an older bus fleets and repairs were becoming extremely costly,” Quarless said.
However, privatization also generates criticism.
For example, Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook said, “Once you sell the buses you get a one-time infusion of cash” but there’s no district control over who is hired.
“Standards are a little lower, the pay is a lot lower,” Cook said.
Lake Linden-Hubbell Public School District Superintendent Craig Sundblad said although there’s no plan to outsource transportation in the near future, it’s on the table if the district ever can’t afford to maintain old buses or buy new ones.
“Because the funding is tight, we’re always looking at what the best bang for our buck is,” Sundblad said. “But with busing we’re looking at the safety of our students.”
By MICHAEL KRANSZ