The North Carolina Pupil Transportation Association, which represents a large share of local education agencies (LEAs) across the state, has petitioned House Education Committee members to revise portions of HB 1040 related to the bidding of bus parts and the state inspection process. A vote on the bill is expected in the next two weeks.
This proposal directs the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to increase the efficiency of school transportation services by reducing the budget rating formula for school bus operations by 1 percent annually from FY 2014-2015 until FY 2018-2019 when the buffer reaches 5 percent. It also would limit the statewide inventory of spare school buses that meet the replacement criteria to 10 percent of the total inventory and create a replacement part-inventory management policy that reduces inventories to levels "sufficient" to meet the requirements of each school transportation program. But the definition of "sufficient" may be in the eye of the beholder.
Eric Eaker, director of transportation for Lincoln County Schools, addressed the committee May 27 on behalf of NCPTA and recommended language revisions to address concerns about potential increased costs and administrative burdens for districts to shoulder.
Transportation budgets have been cut by more than 5 percent during the past five years, which equates to $25 million, while inflation has increased significantly on repair parts, tires and other school bus supplies, begins NCPTA's memo. For example, in just three years tire costs jumped 35 percent, oil rose 12 to 15 percent and lighting soared from a few dollars to $100-plus since LED lighting became standard.
Meanwhile, the association noted that LEAs have had to absorb additional operational and mechanical costs that include transporting homeless students and a growing number of special needs students, as well as repairing air-conditioning equipment that is out of warranty and addressing bus engine issues.
"LEAs have made adjustments over the past few years to improve efficiency to be able to manage these escalating costs; for most LEAs, that well has basically dried up, so any further adjustments to the funding formula will result in a budget reduction," states the memo.
Thus, NCPTA members are requesting a change in Section 1 (a) (1) to read: "Require all LEAs to bid bus parts, tires, fuel and supplies to secure the best pricing possible while maintaining the minimum safety standards for any commodities purchased."
The association is also requesting the removal of Section 1 (a) (3) regarding reducing parts inventory levels because members believe it would have negatively impact budgets by limiting the LEA's ability to save money on bulk pricing for high-volume items and to stock hard-to-find parts while also affecting the turnaround time for repairs if parts have to be ordered instead of being in stock. Last, this proposal may cost LEAs more money in the long term because of added shipping costs.
And if the school bus inspection process needs to be reworked, then the NCPTA would like to be involved because its membership has the experience and know-how to ensure school bus operations are both safe and practical. They are respectfully requesting inclusion in this process through the following change to Section 2, which would begin: "(DPI), in consultation with the (NCPTA), shall revise the State inspection process for inspecting school buses to focus on safety related items that ensure safe and effective school bus operations."
The reason, they say, is to simplify the school bus inspection program so that more buses can be inspected by DPI with its existing staff. Though some items do not have an impact on the safe operation of a yellow bus, they contend that "there are literally hundreds of other items that require inspection" to maximize safety.
"I would like to add that House Bill 1040 is not the only proposed legislation that suggests funding reduction to public school transportation. The Governor's budget references Tort Claim expenditures for at-fault claims are to be reimbursed to the state using local dollars," Eaker concluded. "This is another reduction of funding and added expense to local school districts across the state."
A new law passed one year ago aims to save $185 million over the next five years by requiring the state's school buses be driven 250,000 miles before they are retired and a replacement may be purchased. For 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, all buses 20 years of age regardless of mileage are eligible for replacement, which affects 1994 and 1995 model years, respectively. Approximately 14,000 school buses transport about 800,000 students to and from school each day in North Carolina.