School districts struggling to close budget gaps are analyzing every cost -- and one answer for Clovis Unified is ending a private special-education busing contract and taking on the program itself.
The district is spending $9 million to buy 54 new buses and equipment, hire about 60 employees and build additional garage space and parking areas for the new project, which starts in August.
Over time, district officials say, it will cost less for the district to operate special-education buses than through its existing contract with First Student.
A couple years ago, the switch would have been too costly for Clovis, said Michael Johnston, Clovis Unified's assistant superintendent for business services.
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In 2002, the district raised its eligibility requirements for district-paid health benefits from 20 hours weekly to 30, he said. Special-ed bus drivers will work fewer than 30 hours. As workers that were "grandfathered" in under the 20-hour policy retired or resigned, the program became more cost effective.
Federal law requires districts provide transportation for special-education students, which for Clovis Unified is $4,860 per student. But districts are reimbursed only about a third of the cost; the rest comes out of the district's general fund.
Clovis Unified is reimbursed $750,000 to bus 535 special education students, but it costs the district $2.6 million each year for the service.
By using its own buses, Johnston said, the district will save $200,000 a year -- $3.6 million in 18 years -- and the savings could rise depending on the life-span of the buses. If the new buses last 25 years, savings could exceed $8.5 million, Johnston said.
Other districts have found cost savings by providing the service on their own.
Central Unified took over its special-ed busing in early 2009, Superintendent Michael Berg said.
He said the district is saving about $200,000 a year and will save more when the new buses are paid off in eight years.
The only students not using Central's buses are about a dozen who must go to Fresno County Office of Education sites for certain services, Berg said.
Fresno Unified also considered the change but found it to be too costly, said Susan Bedi, the district's spokeswoman.
Fresno Unified, which has about 1,700 special-ed students, has 146 routes -- compared with 48 in Clovis Unified. Fresno would need more new buses than Clovis, new land for parking and additional garage space, new equipment and more employees, Bedi said.
Fresno's costs also are higher because district-paid benefits go to employees working 20 hours or more each week, she said.
Earlier this year, the district extended its First Student contract for five years.
First Student also provides special-ed busing in rural Fresno County, where it costs about $6,000 per year to bus each student because routes are longer, said Kirk Hunter, chief executive officer for Caruthers-based Southwest Transportation Agency and chairman of the statewide School Transportation Coalition.
Charlie Ott, Clovis Unified transportation director, was in the same role with Yuba City Unified School District in 2002 when he suggested ending its relationship with First Student's predecessor, Laidlaw Transit.
"It is one of the best cost-cutting moves we made," said Baldev Johal, deputy superintendent for Yuba City Unified.
When the district needs to add stops, it reroutes its own buses instead of adding an extra route as the private contractor did, he said.
Savings have averaged $150,000 to $200,000 yearly, Johal said, even as costs have risen and the number of special-ed students has increased.
The state does not monitor which districts handle their own special-ed transportation, said Fred Balcom, California Department of Education's director of special education. But, he added, "It does make sense from a fiscal perspective."
Said Hunter: "Today in education, you are looking at no stone being left unturned. are trying to eliminate the middle man to put savings back into the classroom where it really needs to be."