Transportation study for Harford schools supports bus route changes

A study by a school bus consulting firm, that included the consultants' support of unpopular cutbacks school officials made to transportation for the current school year, was presented to the Harford County Board of Education Monday.

"It was my view that it would be helpful, that we should really bring in a consultant for our [transportation] operations," board member James Thornton said.

Members of the board approved a series of cost-cutting measures to reconcile the current year's budget with what local, state and federal funding sources provided, including transportation changes, such as eliminating direct transportation from home to school for magnet program students, and placing four elementary schools in the school system's Tier 4 schedule, with later starting and dismissal times.

The changes have been unpopular among parents and students, and they have blasted the school board at every opportunity since the school year began in late August of 2013.

Jeff Viar of School Bus Consultants LLC of Annapolis, who presented the findings of the $25,000 transportation study with his colleague, Mike Archer, expressed his support of the changes.

"From our standpoint, and a routing perspective, we commended the school district for doing that," said Viar, who spent years as the transportation supervisor for the Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Del. "I know it was difficult decisions, but unfortunately these types of programs sometimes get out of the realm of cost affordability to school districts and we end up having to make these tough decisions to cut back on them."

Viar and Archer worked closely with Harford County Public Schools' transportation staff during the summer and early fall of 2013 to put together the study, which was based on the previous school year's data.

Viar recommended that the school system purchase a "transportation information routing management system," or school bus routing software to improve efficiencies. School transportation officials are tracking bus information by hand and PowerPoint.

"I'm definitely not in the software business and I don't want to be," he told board members.

He noted that when other districts have adopted the software they have seen gains in how they design and manage routes, obtain reports, cut back the number of buses they use and gain more efficient use of staff time.

Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan asked how much the software would cost. Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, estimated it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 for the initial purchase.

He did not immediately have information on additional annual maintenance or staff training costs, and Canavan asked him to look into it, plus a solid purchase cost.

"I'm very interested in hearing the real number," she said.

Viar commended Harford's transportation department for its safety record, but provided data that showed transportation costs were more than those of comparable counties and well above the national average.

He stressed that costs in the northeastern portion of the country, from Northern Virginia to New England, are typically higher than the rest of the country.

The data showed the school system spent $1,113 per student on transportation, with a projected cost of $982 per student.

The national per-student cost ranged from $650 to $840 per student. District A in Maryland spent $891 per student, District B $720 and District C $788.

Viar said the names of the counties were not shown to protect School Bus Consultants' client confidentiality.

Legislative agenda

School board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo recommended that his board colleagues put the words of their 2014 legislative platform into action, including statements calling for maintaining local control of county school systems, by supporting the "elimination" of the Maryland State Department of Education.

"If we mean it, if it's more than words on paper, we need to support eliminating the Maryland State Department of Education," Grambo said.

Grambo put his view forth as an amendment to a motion by the board to accept the legislative platform that will be given out by Harford County leaders during the 2014 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

He cited the requirements that have been passed from the state to the counties, which often come with a hefty price tag for the local government, such as Common Core standards, PARCC testing and the latest, providing mandatory pre-kindergarten.

He also encouraged the board to oppose mandatory pre-K, even if the state does provide the necessary funding.

"This is a big issue, folks," he said. "You want to keep taking the kids away from the parents earlier and earlier and having the state become a surrogate parent and then ask why violence is going up?"

Grambo did not get a second for his amendment to dismantle the MSDE or to oppose mandatory pre-K.

The legislative platform, as presented by Kathy Carmello, facilitator for governmental relations, includes requests for the support of local control of county school systems, supporting full state funding for education, opposing mandatory pre-K, "unless the costs are fully borne by the state," and making site design and engineering costs for facilities reimbursable by the state.

Board members voted, 8-2, to accept the legislative platform as proposed. Grambo and board member Robert Frisch voted against it.

"I share Mr. Grambo's concerns on many levels when it comes to what I consider to be the overreach of the federal government and the state government into local education issues," Frisch said before the vote was taken. "I'm just not willing to go as far as Mr. Grambo in his particular amendments."

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