The Robbinsdale Area Schools Board of Education meets at the Education Service Center in New Hope.

After a low-performing first year from contract bus company Durham School Services, the Robbinsdale School Board is seeking more information on alternatives to busing transportation in the future.

The central consideration is whether the district will continue to utilize contract busing or return to an in-house system. District transportation hasn’t been in-house since 2012.

At a June 7 work session of the Robbinsdale School Board, Superintendent David Engstrom said staff purposely didn’t recommend one busing system over another.

“We’ve been asked to do an analysis,” Engstrom explained.

According to projections by Jeff Connell, the district’s executive director of facilities, operations, and transportation, returning to an in-house system would cost $13.4 million annually, with an additional up-front $9.3 million to replenish the district’s fleet with new buses.

As a comparison, Connell said Durham’s contract was $7.8 million annually, though the actual cost from last July (when the contract took effect) to April had been $10.1 million.

Current state of busing

The 2021-2022 year has been plagued with driver shortages. While the difficulty of hiring and retaining staff is oft-cited as a nationwide issue, the district has appeared to experience a particularly rough case as it transitioned to its new vendor. The company is based in Lisle, Ill.

When the 2021-2022 school year began, the district had 67 routes. But after the first week, 12 bus routes shuttling 1,486 students to and from their homes was canceled due to an inability to find bus drivers.

While the remaining 55 routes were operational, routes were routinely canceled daily due to driver call-ins, a challenge that continued to the end of the school year. The school district has added services from a handful of other local bus providers when available to fill in gaps in service.

District 281 first privatized its busing ten years ago as a cost-cutting measure. In spring 2021, the school board opted to switch its contractor from First Student to Durham School Services, effective that fall.

The district is tied to Durham until July 2023 per the contract, though staff noted that the contract allowed Durham to leave at any point with 30 days notice. If the bus company did so, staff were not confident they could find a replacement without an “extremely high cost of daily route pay.”

If the board were to decide to return to in-house busing, staff concluded that the transition wouldn’t be complete until at least 2025, leaving two interim school years in which the district would have to continue with Durham or choose another contractor.

A three-year transition

Connell said contract versus in-house systems were not an “apples to apples” comparison. Rapid shifts in the market, which currently catered to drivers due to the shortage, and the costs of raw materials put labor and bus purchase costs in flux. Connell and Transportation Director Carrie Johnson said the cost projections they offered now could be very different than what the district ended up spending if they went forward with in-house busing.

“The salaries and benefits and retentions and referrals has been unprecedented this year,” Connell said of the labor shortage. “Companies are moving from signing bonuses to annual bonuses just to retain staff, because drivers are putting in their year and want to move on to the next company’s signing bonus.”

The district does have its own fleet, including 48 full-size and 10 small buses all purchased before 2012. Only a portion are still driven today. Staff reported that 36 buses have between $1,500 and $7,000 worth of needed repairs each. A staff discussion with bus companies led to a belief that these buses also have a low trade-in value of about $1,500 mainly due to rust, patches, size, and the type of brake system and engine.

A new full-size bus costs $99,000-$108,000, with a minimum six-month waiting period.

A hybrid model

The consensus of the school board after the presentation was a desire for more information.

“We were put through a rock and a hard place a year ago,” said Board Member John Vento of the decision to contract with Durham. “Let’s get the data to move forward, and let’s make a good decision.”

Board members Sharon Brooks Green, Michael Herring and David Boone asked why the district only considered purchasing all new buses in their analysis, when it would be much cheaper to rehab the existing fleet.

Herring asked if it was common for other school districts to purchase new buses instead of repairing them.

“$7,000 for a $100,000 bus doesn’t seem to be too much,” Herring said.

Brooks Green agreed.

“Is it vanity? Do we want to put a bigger shine on our district with some new buses? Are we being conservative with our money?” Brooks Green asked.

Connell said the state of the stored buses was not ideal.

“The point we’re trying to make is that the fleet is old,” Connell said. “We are upside down in the asset versus investment equation.”

Vento, who disclosed that he worked in the transportation industry, said in his experience a school district either maintained an in-house fleet or contracted with a company that provided buses, not both.

“We are unique with this hybrid, and we’re able to pull that off because we have the garage,” Vento said.

Board Member Sam Sant added that if there was going to be a conversation about buying new buses, he would like information on the costs, benefits and grant opportunities to introduce electric vehicles into the fleet.

“Gas is expensive and will only go higher, now is the time more than any,” Sant said.

Herring was ambivalent on whether the time was right to purchase electric vehicles, but agreed that the topic should be explored.

More information needed

Herring disagreed with the staff summation that the comparison between in-house and contract busing wasn’t an “apples to apples” comparison.

“I look at this presentation and I read it like the district is trying to say ‘let’s not bring it in house,’” Herring said. “Yeah, I’m a proponent of bringing it in house, for multiple reasons, and I need apples to apples.”

Herring added that because his term would be ending soon after eight years on the board, he would continue to advocate for his transportation goals.

Board members also asked why Durham didn’t utilize more of the district’s stored buses. Johnson said Durham used 25 district vehicles. Connell said he didn’t know why only a portion were used by Durham and would need to do more research.

At many points of the heated discussion, school board members told Connell, Engstrom and Jonson that they were not angry with the staff, as most had come into the district after the decision to choose Durham had been made.

Vento alleged that the info staff was sharing now hadn’t been readily shared with the board one year ago when it chose Durham, and that he had been concerned at the time that the choice would “blow up in our faces” given Durham’s track record in Minnesota.

“I’m trying real hard not to say this right now, but I told you so,” Vento said.

One of the final discussion points of the night was the timeline for the board to make a decision. Connell said the three-year timeline transition would be tight, so a decision would need to be reached soon.

Bassett said the board understood the urgency and wanted to know when staff would return for the next discussion on the matter. Engstrom said it would be discussed at future agenda setting meetings.

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