Gurnee Elementary District 56, Warren Township High School District 121 and Woodland Elementary District 50 near Chicago have entered into an agreement to share in-house school bus operations to achieve two goals: to save money and improve student safety.
Gurnee Elementary District 56 Superintendent John Hutton said the three districts spend about $850,000 annually, combined, in private taxi service. What bothers him most about this arrangement is the lack of control the districts have over the quality of the cab drivers.
“If we can make things safer for children, that’s more important than saving money. If we’re putting them on a taxi, we don’t know about the driver,” Hutton said, adding that the districts cannot check cab drivers’ insurance, experience or criminal background. “It’s been a scary proposition putting these kids on taxis, so we’ve been wanting to get out of that business.”
Despite efforts to move away from taxi service, District 56 had to rely on it for transporting homeless students, a population Hutton has seen grow substantially in the past two years.
“The definition of ‘homeless’ has changed. They could be displaced, like when families double up in one house. So we’ve had to provide additional transportation arrangements,” said Hutton.
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homelessness as “unstable, night-time residency” and requires school districts to offer homeless children transportation services to their school of origin for the remainder of the current school year. Hutton explained that if a child in his school district were uprooted and moved to Wisconsin, for example, his district and the new school district would split the cost of transporting Johnny and Suzy potentially hundreds of miles each day.
Hutton is confident the new agreement with districts 50 and 121 will help all three to save money on special needs transportation, because he has seen it happen before. Two years ago, District 56 entered into a similar agreement with District 121 to share buses and staff.
“Since then, we’ve saved several hundred thousand dollars by ordering fewer buses and hiring fewer personnel,” Hutton said, noting that the elementary schoolchildren ride separately from the Warren high school students.
The latest agreement calls for an advisory council comprised of administrators from the three school districts to meet on a regular basis. The respective transportation directors will be part of the daily operation, overseeing all the routes, pickup and delivery times, as well as the charters or contracted service.
Hutton added that new, well-equipped minivans will replace the costly taxicabs and provide “a good safe ride for the children.”
For the Good of Illinois reported that school districts statewide spent about $48 million from 2006 to 2011 on taxi service for students with special needs, including homeless students: 42 districts spent $28 million and five spent $20 million. So, it was just 5 percent of Illinois districts that “racked up $48 million in taxi charges,” as 95 percent complied with the state mandate to educate special needs children without taxicab transportation.
At the NASDPTS annual conference last fall, Ohio state director Pete Japikse stated that the added weight of “yellow and black taxis” bent the backs of school districts in his state to the breaking point. He recommended that student transporters collaborate more with local police, with taxpayers and with each other to keep safety levels up and transportation costs down.