Nationally, more than 40 percent of student transportation is provided by private carriers.
Reprinted with permission of the Herald Palladium in St. Joseph.
Over the past several years Michigan has undergone a
significant economic downturn, and, as a result, funding for education has been
slashed. Michigan schools have been left with the huge problem of continuing to
provide quality educational programs and services to our students with fewer
dollars. Proposal A (approved in 1994), which helped narrow the gap between
wealthy and poor districts, took away school districts’ ability to raise taxes
The Berrien County Intermediate School District, in its
role as a service agency, provides programs, services and funding to local
school districts. These funds help local districts offset their costs for
operating special education programs and for providing special services to their
students. Thus, dollars saved by the BCISD result in increased funding,
programs and services for local district operations.
With local district options for raising new money through
taxes limited, discussions have turned toward reducing expenses. In 1994, PA
112 was amended; allowing schools to privatize non-instructional services
without going through the collective bargaining process. In fact, the
amendments went beyond removing the necessity to negotiate on this issue and
made it an illegal subject of bargaining. As a result, the past decade has seen
many local and intermediate school districts outsource their food service,
custodial, transportation and certain administrative services to reduce costs
without directly impacting instructional programs to students.
The BCISD has privatized
the food service program and the transportation system for students attending
the Lighthouse Education Center (formerly North Lincoln School) for many years
with great success. More recently the district also privatized some
administrative and consulting services, resulting in more than $200,000 in
savings this past year. Since the transportation system at the Blossomland
Learning Center is a high-cost item, privatizing has been discussed for several
years. In the fall of 2004, the BCISD met informally with various potential
vendors to gather information about the services they might offer and the
potential savings the district might realize.
In December 2004,
requests for proposals (known as RFPs) were sent to possible transportation
vendors. In March the district received firm bids from three private carriers.
The most attractive (and lowest) bid was submitted by Laidlaw Education Services
and, if implemented, would save the BCISD nearly $1 million for each year of the
five-year proposal. Laidlaw is the largest private contractor of student
transportation services in the country with more than 40,000 buses; the company
also provides services to more than 1,000 school districts.
Given that school
districts now have the right to privatize these services, the more difficult
question becomes: "Is it the right thing to do?" Arriving at the best answer
involves significant discussion, critical analysis of bids (focusing on safety
and quality issues) and a detailed check of references including on-site
The safe and efficient
transportation of our students is, and always will be, the most important
consideration. This holds true both for regular students and for students with
special needs. Jeopardizing their safety and quality of care would not be an
option, regardless of the amount of dollars saved. Currently, many Michigan
districts, ISDs and local districts outsource all or a significant portion of
their transportation services. Nationally, more than 40 percent of student
transportation is provided by private carriers. While it is easy to become
caught up in discussing whether the private contractor or the public employee
would provide more safety and quality, the fact is there is no evidence to
support that either one meets a higher standard of quality, care or safety than
While this decision is about students and cost savings,
the BCISD remains sensitive to the anxiety this causes for our transportation
staff. These employees have performed admirably over the years and are
sensitive to the needs of the students. The district has required that any
successful bidder provide the first opportunity for employment to our current
staff. Although the benefits would be reduced if employed by a private
contractor, hourly compensation would be commensurate with their current wages.
The mission of the
Berrien County Intermediate School District is "to provide programs and services
to our constituent school districts which enhance learning opportunities for all
students." If the BCISD can provide private transportation services to our
students while meeting the same or higher standard of quality and safety, and
realize a significant cost savings that would provide enhanced educational
opportunities to the students in our local districts, it would be fiscally
irresponsible to do otherwise.
Jeff Siegel is superintendent of the Berrien County Intermediate School District.