Despite inflationary pressures, Spokane Public Schools expects to pay slightly less this year to the company that provides its school bus services.
On Wednesday night, the school board is expected to approve an addendum to its contract with Durham School Services which calls for a 7% rate increase. However, the district expects the hike will be more than offset by a reduction in the number of routes.
“I expect to see a slight decrease,” said Cindy Coleman, the district’s chief financial officer.
The school district and Durham are entering the final year of a five-year contract, which includes language for increases in the Consumer Price Index.
No rate increase was granted last year, Coleman said.
However, rising gasoline prices have driven up costs for Durham, which also has struggled to retain drivers.
According to school district Superintendent Adam Swinyard, the local Durham operation employed about 170 drivers to cover about 150 routes.
Those numbers plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic and never recovered, despite a heavy recruiting effort by Durham that included substantial pay increases and signing bonuses for new drivers.
The district responded last spring by proposing mitigation strategies to lower its costs.
The biggest change is expansion of the district’s “walk boundary” for middle and high school students. Until now, students without special needs who live within a 1-mile radius of their school are not eligible for transportation.
That radius is now 1½ miles, though not for elementary students. The district also plans to have fewer stops, thereby cutting travel time.
The district also forged a partnership with the Spokane Transit Authority to serve high school students. This summer, STA approved implementation of a Zero Fare for Youth policy.
Together, those efforts mean that Durham will service 120 routes, a decrease of 33 from last year. The school district will pay the applicable rate per route only for routes that operate each day.
Those measures are expected to bring a slight decrease in the district’s overall bill.
Until the pandemic, the district’s transportation costs have increased steadily for more than a decade. In 2011, Coleman said, the district paid Durham $8.5 million for base transportation, not including field trips and extracurricular activities.
The bill increased to $11.8 million in the 2018-19 school year, then fell by $900,000 the following year as the pandemic forced students home for the last three months of the year.
Coleman said she projects that this year’s bill will be “slightly lower” than last year’s $9.2 million.
Families that have registered for the bus and still have questions or concerns are encouraged to call the district’s new transportation hotline at (509) 354-5970.
The hotline will be staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Outside of those hours, families should send messages to spokaneschools.org/letstalk.
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