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Cost, wait times cited in district busing audit

Spokane Public Schools considering efficiency by improving occupancy rate on some routes

Adams Elementary School fifth-grader Adlee Filbert, left, and second-grader Cody Bates were among nine students catching the bus after school Monday in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)
Adams Elementary School fifth-grader Adlee Filbert, left, and second-grader Cody Bates were among nine students catching the bus after school Monday in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)

Some buses ridden by Spokane Public Schools students are only 20 percent full, and consequently, the district’s per-student cost is higher than in like-size districts, according to a new audit of the district’s transportation program.

The audit also found that the district’s buses are safe and well-maintained, but nearly all middle school students have to wait 30 minutes for a bus ride after school. The wait times prompted a recommendation that the district stagger the times when schools let out.

In addition, the audit found the district’s transportation program is underfunded by the state by $2.7 million.

Bob Douthitt, school board president, said he “thought they (auditors) raised a lot of good points, and the suggestions require some follow-up.” Douthitt said he’d like to see if the district can save money on its transportation program, as well as cut the time middle school students have to wait.

The district solicited the study of its transportation program by a state transportation team. “In this case, the district wanted us to look at overall efficiency,” said Mike Kenney, regional transportation coordinator for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “They are doing a good job. But there are just a couple areas of concern.”

The timing of the audit was intentional, officials said. The district has been systematically reviewing support operations, including after-school programs and janitorial services, and bus services were on the list. Also, the five-year contract between Durham School Services and Spokane is coming to an end soon, said Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools assistant superintendent.

The district’s schedule is the same as it has been for decades, but more students are riding the bus and there are many more special education students. Spokane transports 6,500 basic education and 900 special education students daily, Anderson said.

The annual cost per student rider in Spokane was $1,182, according to the audit. The next most comparable district was Everett at $963. The state performance guideline is $500, but none of the districts comparable to Spokane attains that threshold.

“We serve more special education than other districts in the area, and when they did the audit they didn’t factor out special education students of our costs per 100 students,” Anderson said. He said he will ask auditors to run the numbers again to determine the cost-per-student for basic education students, a majority of kids transported.

Some buses serve only a handful of kids, which is one reason for the high cost per student, so officials are considering the possibility of combining students from two elementary schools on one bus.

However, Douthitt said, “if we put more kids on a bus, it could mean an hour on the bus.”

To address the problem of long waits for middle school students – who are supervised during that time – the audit suggested the district change the end of the school day. The same buses serve elementary, middle and high schools, and there isn’t enough time between the end of the day at different grade levels, said Jason Conley, safety, security and transportation director. “There are only 45 minutes between first release time and that last, and that’s just not enough time.”

But changing the school day would take several steps, including contract negotiations with staff and faculty, Anderson said.

Another suggestion is for the same buses to run the high school and elementary routes, and split off middle schools into a separate route.

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