Wilmette School District 39 is one of only two elementary school districts in New Trier Township to operate its own bus fleet. That could end if School Board members like what they hear from administrators now researching the possibility.
District residents and other members of the public will get their chance to hear more about turning over bus service duties to a private contractor, and to comment on the idea, at a Dec. 12 special board meeting and public hearing on the issue.
While the board won’t make a final decision at that meeting – scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Mikaelian Education Center, 615 Locust Road, ahead of the board’s regular December meeting – district officials hope to get a definitive answer by the end of next March, Superintendent Raymond Lechner said Nov. 11.
The idea of outsourcing bus-service costs surfaced during the lead-up to this spring’s successful tax hike referendum proposal, he said.
At that time, district administrators looked at a variety of cost-cutting scenarios, not only to close a budget gap with several million dollars in spending cuts and fee increases, but also to cut costs in future.
“During this time, a community group of parents did some analysis of district needs, and one of the things they suggested was outsourcing transportation,” Lechner said.
Administrators are researching the idea now, and plan to bring what they find out, to the Dec. 11 hearing. If the board does decide it wants to explore the idea further, the district would issue bid specifications, Lechner said; the responses to those bid requests would provide the district with more hard data on possible cost savings.
“We’d like to have that information so that we could have a decision finished by the March (2012) School Board meeting,” he said.
Currently, the district operates its own fleet of 16 buses. Two are 71-passenger vehicles, 12 can carry 65 passengers, and two wheelchair-accessible vehicles carry 54 students each.
District 39’s regular bus transportation costs make up 69 percent of its annual transportation expenditures. The remainder of the $983,829 transportation budget is for special education costs, which are handled largely through taxicab services or contractual bus services.
District Business Manager Crystal LeRoy said that, if the district were to go seek an outside contract with a company like Alltown or Positive Connections – two companies that handle bus services for several suburban school districts – it could potentially ask would-be contractors how much they would charge to handle the district’s special education needs as well.
LeRoy said Monday that 83 percent of in-house bus costs, or $569,249, is budgeted for salaries and benefits.
The district has the equivalent of 3.5 employees hired solely to drive school buses. Seven district custodians also work as bus drivers. Another five people serve as substitute drivers. If necessary, the district’s full-time transportation, custodian and maintenance heads can help with bus driving, LeRoy said.
All bus drivers are members of the district’s support staff union; Lechner said the district would have to work out details of outsourcing that could affect drivers with that union.
After salaries and benefits, the district’s two largest bus fleet costs are repair and maintenance, followed by supplies, which consists mostly of gasoline, LeRoy said.
Avoca School District 37 is the other New Trier Township school district that operates its own bus service. New Trier Township High School District 203 contracts out for its bus services, as does Winnetka School District 36 and Glencoe Elementary School District 35. Sunset Ridge School District 29 does not have regular school bus service; nor does Kenilworth Elementary School District 38.