Saturday, March 9, 2019

On Worcester transportation

It's well worth reading the full report on transportation that's going to Finance and Operations on Monday, 'though I appreciate this summary article from Scott O'Connell. First, note the comment under transportation from the second quarter budget update (which is itself always worth reading):
The district’s transportation department has continuously been providing expanded customer service for parents and district staff, supervisory coverage for athletic trips during evening and weekends, as well as additional training for drivers.
Back to the report...
The executive summary lays out the following parameters:
The Administration of the Worcester Public Schools has been studying the full district-operated student transportation based on cost, customer service, and improved service to students.
Thus we should be looking in the report for evidence that the recommendation is borne out on cost, customer service, and improved student service.

The superintendent's recommendation is, again, is a "phased approach," switching only some vans next year, then considering the full transportation again in two years. Her justification is:
The Superintendent is committed to improved student transportation services but intends to focus district administration’s human resources and efforts to the sustained instructional improvements that have begun at the “underperforming” schools.
I have heard many things about making improvements at underperforming schools, but never have I heard it used as an excuse not to otherwise go about the work of the district. Worcester can't run buses on time as needed and improve the education of students at the same time? This is essentially a concession of not being able to manage a district.

The only savings suggested that this switch to vans would provide is possibly to provide transportation to early college and other such off-campus programming. This past year, early college programming was 159 students, in a district where buses serve 12,000 students daily.

Note that the superintendent is recommending a two year contract with Durham, with an option for a third year. Per the report (page 9), first year increases with Durham have been 11% (in this current contract), 8.8% (in the one before that), and 6.1% (in 2005-10) for five year contracts. What will be the increase on a contract that runs for only two years with a vendor that has made it clear it cares not a fig for "contractual specifications between the parties," as the report puts it? Further, look at the list of other Massachusetts districts on page 8 and how high those increases have come in across the state (and how many of them had only a single bidder).

It is difficult to see how the recommendation to go out to bid for two years could result in a positive result on cost.

The analysis on district-based transportation, however, is projected to save the district $36M over 10 years. That would bear out cost. This would allow the district, the report says: provide additional transportation models for schools, such as later school start times, lower walking distances, and increased ridership opportunities for students at no new cost to the district
That would be improved student service. Additionally--and perhaps, ironically--later school start times have been demonstrated to improve academic performance, which would argue that we should be bringing transportation in-house if our concern is indeed on "underperforming" schools.

The report notes that having transportation in-house makes the district solely responsible for transportation, plus using updated technology would allow increased responsiveness. That would be customer service. Perhaps this would mean that we could finally get a GPS app for parents and students, something which has been required in at least the last two contracts with Durham, and still has yet to happen.

Athletic trips were brought in-house already this year.
As any teacher or parent who has tried to create them knows, the major expense on field trips is buses. The report says in-house transportation would allow for field trips at approximately 75% less than recent costs! Check out this chart from page 16:

We might actually be able to swing sending kids on field trips! That would also be both cost and improved student service.

The report then talks about the transportation study done in 2013-2014 (remember that?). Of the recommendations made in the final report were hiring a full-time route planner, which was done in FY19; updating repair records to software, which is being done now; and communication on buses that are running late...which can currently only be done in the eleven buses that WPS operates, as Durham does not communication appropriately with the districts about buses that aren't running or are running late.
Thus customer service is lacking, due to the intransigence of the contracted provider.

The report next relates the district's zero-based budgeting to transportation, relating the various programs in which costs have been brought down through changes in practice:
The district’s current practice has been to bring services into the district in areas that we have demonstrated:
  • Services converted to district-provided have been highly successful and sustainable
  • The ability to use existing resources to compensate new district employees at a fair market rate
  • The ability to obtain a better level of control of service delivery to students
  • The conversion of funds from the amount that would have otherwise been profit margin for the contracted vendor into investments into that program or savings back to the district budget for reallocation to other instructional services.

The goal and outcome in these recent experiences has been to provide some level of financial savings and improved customer service by moving services into the district.
Note further (page 5) that due to the city's chronic underfunding of the school district capital needs--my words, not the report's--the district has in-district buses on a 13 year replacement cycle. Leasing buses enables a quicker replacement cycle with lower maintenance costs.

The argument throughout this section is that the Worcester Public Schools have a solid history of closely examining services needed and adjusting the contractual requirements both to save money and to improve service. Thus:
Through the district budget and planning process, the Administration has identified each year since 2015, that the district should carefully examine the possibility of providing district operated student transportation services...
The end of that sentence--beginning in the 2022-2023 or 2023-2024 school year--is simply untrue. The recommendations have either said it should be looked at or that it should be looked at as the next (the current) contract closes. In sum:
In other words, while many districts, like Worcester, have no real demonstrated competition for student transportation, we continue to see annual costs exceed the rate of budget growth in any given year; whereas a school district is entirely motivated to control both costs without sacrificing the level of service provided.
And schools, unlike private service providers, don't run the services for a profit. They can focus on good service for appropriate cost.

This article from the 2017 Sunday Telegram is cited next, as is a review of other districts' experiences with recent transportation bids, and a review of the history of Worcester in looking at transportation. The 2010 budget reported that bringing services in-house should be considered in 2015! It was also mentioned in FY16, FY17, FY18, and FY19.

As for service:
...there have been detailed numerous other contractual compliance issues during this current contract period
Yes, indeed there have been, as many, many parents and students can attest. One doesn't have to look very far to see that this is a chronic issue with Durham, either. (When I first posted about this, a friend in Ames, Iowa commented about their issues as well, which sent me looking...) It seems, however, that such issues don't matter to those making the recommendation.

There follows a list of districts that either recently have or are shifting to in-district transportation.

If what you're interested in is why we'd want to change over, start on page 14, as that lays out how the costs work out--where that $36M in savings come from--and what has been considered. Again, note:
All other costs associated with a third party vendor that is “overhead and profit” is not needed in a district-operated model. All of these costs can be invested into improving transportation services and/or provide savings back to the district for reallocation to support instructional areas.
This also lays out what the district could do if it were running the system--real time arrival information (which we've been contractually requiring and not getting since...2010?); customer service staffing; supplemental transportation, including for field trips--as well as the staffing that already has changed and what would need to change.

So why should we change? To use only half of the second-to-last sentence:
...a cost savings, improved customer service to students, parents and schools, and expanded transportation options for the district at no additional cost than the current budget
(emphasis added)
It's been ten years. It is time to end the dithering and move to better service for lower cost.
This is taken up Monday at 5 pm on the 4th floor of 20 Irving Street. 

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