Though the Natrona County School District is seeking to cut travel costs with its new school bus hub in downtown Casper, a Star-Tribune analysis of state transportation data suggests the district’s costs are close to those of another district that has used the hub concept for 30 years.
The analysis also suggests Natrona County is transporting students more cost-efficiently than in Cheyenne, where students attend neighborhood schools.
The state Department of Education does not track per-student spending among Wyoming school districts, said David Koskelowski, program manager for traffic safety and pupil transportation at the department. It's not statutorily required and the math is messy, he said. Instead of averaging many counts of student riders, like the state does to accurately measure school enrollment, for instance, data tracking the number of students transported on school buses each year is taken on a single day in February. Districts vary tremendously in size and geography, making efficiency difficult to measure statewide.
But a simple calculation -- splitting each district's annual transportation reimbursement by the number of students transported to and from school during each of the past 10 years -- gives a rough estimate of how much it costs each district to take one child to and from school each year.
On the whole, smaller districts paid more per student than larger districts to take kids to and from school, the data suggest.
Districts like Platte County School District 2 in Guernsey and Fremont County School District 2 in Dubois paid far more than larger districts. In Guernsey, the state covered an average of $7,051 per student in transit costs over each of the last 10 years. For every student riding the bus in Dubois, the state paid an average of $3,420.
That's far higher than large districts like Cheyenne, where transportation cost an average $1,768 per student over the last 10 years.
"It could be the reimbursement of a bus purchase," Koskelowski said. "It could be wages. Some of the smaller districts have to pay more to retain drivers."
Laramie County School District 1, for instance, spent $2.6 million on more than a dozen new buses and several leases of buses and small vehicles in the 2012-13 school year, said Merle Smith, transportation director for the district.
Their operational costs were nowhere near the $7.8 million the state reimbursed them for transportation that year, Smith said.
Driver retention is a big issue for districts statewide, Koskelowski said. Currently, many of the drivers are at or nearing retirement age. That's true throughout much of the educational sector in Wyoming, where one in five teachers is over the age of 55.
Wyoming is the only state that reimburses its school districts for 100 percent of their transportation costs, Koskelowski said.
“And we need it, for what we do and the size of the state that we operate in,” he said.
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By using a centralized hub where students transfer from one bus to another before and after school, Natrona County estimates it can halve its regular route miles. That will save fuel costs and decrease wear and tear on buses, said Syd Webb, transportation director for the district.
But Natrona County is not far off from the per-student cost of another medium-sized district already using the bus “hub” concept.
Barry Capellen, transportation for Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton, calls the patch of land near the district bus garage a “transfer area.”
About 18 of the district’s 25 buses gather kids from around the rural county, then reshuffle them onto buses that take them to school.
“That way, we don’t have 18 buses going to all the schools in town,” Capellen said.
It’s the way the district has transported students for about 30 years. Capellen said the transfer area shaved about 18,000 miles off the total number of miles its school buses drive each year.
“The system we’ve got works good for us,” Capellen said. “We think we’re going to stick with it.”
The state spent on average $1,287 per student in Fremont County School District 25 over each of the last 10 years.
In Natrona County, that cost is $1,535 – about 20 percent more expensive.
School of choice?
Webb said transporting students all over the county to the school of their choosing – instead of to their neighborhood school, as all other school districts in the state do – likely adds to Natrona County’s overall transportation costs.
But if it does, it’s not by much, according to per student figures from Natrona County and Laramie County School District 1.
While the state spent $1,535 per Natrona County student over each of the last 10 years, the cost of transporting a student in Laramie County School District 1 was higher, at $1,768.
“We are more efficient,” Webb said. “Now [with the bus hub], we’re going to be even better.”