Saturday, May 17, 2014

So, about that transportation audit...

Let's talk about school buses for a bit, shall we?
We run them to get children to school so they can learn. If we take seriously the ideal of a free public education for all, we must take absolutely seriously any barriers to children getting that education. Most of our operations end of things deals with this: is the building comfortable for learning? are the kids hungry? do they have what they need to learn? and, yes, how do kids get there safely?

Unfortunately, that motivation is not one that is recognized in anyway by the transportation audit, which is appended to the City Council agenda for Tuesday (and came through in our School Committee Friday letter).
For those just joining the story, some members of the City Council have had concerns regarding the amount of money spent on transportation for the Worcester Public (and parochial and charter) Schools. Thus, last year, City Manager O'Brien included, and the City Council passed, $75,000 for a transportation audit; I've heard that it cost $50,000.
The audit was undertaken by School Bus Consultants, a nationwide consulting company, under the auspices of the City Auditor's department.
As this is the final year of our transportation contracts, I'd hoped that there might be suggestions in the report that could inform what we were looking for in the next round. Instead, the suggestions appear to ignore why we transport children, miss that it is children rather than cargo that we transport, fail to recognize choices that have been made for academic reasons, and, even after the extreme suggestions made, still can't project savings more than $1 million.
To take the report in the summary order from the City Auditor's office:
    They wish us to hire by a fee for service rather than fee for day structure, then they press to eliminate the services that happen during the day. If you've heard anything about WPS transportation, you've heard that once the bus leaves the bus yard, we've paid for it for the day. Thus as many as possible trips are squeezed into each individual bus to maximize use. They would instead have us pay per individual trip, eliminating all flexibility from the system (without additional cost), which enables us to meet needs as they occur during the year. This is a deliberate choice on the part of the Worcester Public Schools; the report sounds to me as though the consulting company is sure that only fee-per-trip can be right, regardless of need.
   The very first suggestion on routing is to hire an additional administrator just to route buses. They advance this notion despite the (acknowledged) excellent performance by Mr. Hennessey, because he does the routing and the managing. I will admit that I laughed out loud at this suggestion. Need I argue that if a single administrator does this job well, we need not hire a second?
     They don't like how we're using our routing software.
     They suggest looking at bell times for schools, which is fine; we can always look.
     They want us to formalize our walk distance for bus stops as a policy (I believe Dr. Friel will argue that this is in fact a procedure); I suspect this is so exceptions are not made. As exceptions are made only for safety reasons, I'm not sure that this is a very good idea, either.
     They want parents to register for transportation, and they want high school students who drive to opt out of transportation. In a district with a 40% mobility rate, I think they're overestimating what sort of ability to plan this is going to give us; I know it's going to be a lot more paperwork.
     The bit that I suspect is going to get the attention is this: "An analysis of the impact on providing regular education services for grades K through 6 only is provided." In other words, what if we cut transportation for grades 7-12? They claim that this would save the system $1 million. Can I suggest that cutting buses for 5 of the 13 grades we serve for 1/12 savings is not a great return?
Moreover, let's look at some of what those grade 7-12 buses do:
  • they allow us to have Worcester Technical High School
  • they allow us to have a K-12 arts magnet system
  • they allow us to have the Goddard Scholars program 
and, most importantly:
  • students who lack dependable access to school are at greater risk for not attending school and for dropping out. Cutting transportation for secondary students, particularly in a city like ours without citywide public transportation, puts the system at risk for higher rates of dropping out and non-completion.
Remember, it's about getting kids to school so that they can get an education. That's why we run the buses at all! 
The comparison they make--to the Council of Great Cities Schools--is not to our peer group of schools at all. Boston, for example, buses 33,000 students but does not provide buses for most of grades 7-12; it does so at the cost of $100 million a year and with a massive public transit system.
They also question the dispatch of buses, suggesting, for example, that we use too many buses for Worcester Arts Magnet School. Currently, we use six buses. They suggest using two. For a city that is close to 40 square miles, this is an impractical suggestion. We are transporting children, not sacks of flour.
In short, I'm not impressed, and I think a careful reading by anyone familiar with the system will prove likewise.

Entirely as a side note, the following from the cover memo is not true: "Costs to transport homeless students are reimbursed under the McKinney-Vento grant." The McKinney-Vento grant does not cover transportation of students; the state auditor has found that the Commonwealth should reimburse districts for this costs, something it thus far has not fully done. 

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