The state Department of Education believes its overhaul of how bus companies bid on servicing
schools is paying off.
Since 2012, the DOE changed how it bid out the school bus contracts. The department said it dramatically reduced the student transportation bill.
"Bids came in substantially lower because of the competition in the market," DOE Facilities Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson said. This year the department is paying nine bus companies $60 million, down $12 million from just a few years ago.
But some parents say the savings doesn't make up for big inconveniences this year as driver shortages spurred route consolidations.
"It's crazy," said mother Lorena Kashiwamura. "I don't know why DOE does not just figure out something for the safety of our kids. Still, Carlson said the state is now in the driver's seat when it comes to bus contracts.
"We tell the contractor these are the routes we want you to drive. It's their job to figure out how to fill them in," he said.
In 2012, lawmakers pressured the DOE to slash the cost of bus service by getting more companies to bid. Senator Jill Tokuda was education chair. "We wanted to see increased competition," she said. "We wanted to see good services for our students. That was the bottom line."
The DOE is utilizing another tool to trim the bus bill. Daily passenger counts show which routes can be consolidated. "If I have two buses running side-by-side and they are both at 30% capacity it behooves us to combine those and make it into one route," Carlson said.
Roberts Hawaii president and CEO Percy Higashi said the DOE's new request for proposals process allowed its bid evaluators to consider other factors besides price. "Yet all of the bidders from the mainland offers were higher than those of the local contractors," he said.
Still, Carlson believes the greatest cost savings came from the low-bid system because it brought mainland companies into the mix. One holds a contract for a cluster of routes on the Big Island.
"I know that people don't like to hear that we are opening up to the mainland. What it did do is force people to get competitive and to sharpen their pencils," Carlson said.
Last year, more than 31,000 public school students in the state rode a school bus every day. The DOE is still tabulating this year's ridership.