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Hearing focuses on Boston Public Schools’ struggles with transit costs, appealing meals

Steep price tag for school choice, charters, special education door-to-door pick up

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Hearing focuses on Boston Public Schools’ struggles with transit costs, appealing meals
School department officials are seeking ways to reduce the number of bus routes needed.

With the school budget proposal and accompanying Boston Public School officials in front of them, city councilors during a recent hearing pressed BPS to clamp down on its transportation spending and raised hopes that more resources could be channeled into the school departments’ shoestring budget.

BPS officials, meanwhile, stressed the difficulty of limiting transit expenses with some cost contributors stuck outside of district control, coupled with the need to carefully ensure that attempts to trim spending do not leave children stranded. Still, officials said they have some ideas.

By the numbers

11 percent of yellow bus riders are served by door-to-door pick up and account for 37 percent of transit costs

11 percent of riders are charter school students and account for 13 percent of transit costs

1 percent of riders are parochial students and account for 2 percent of transit costs

of riders are privately-placed special education students and account for 7 percent of transit costs

~33 percent of students account for 80 percent of transit costs

Getting from A to B on budget

Transportation seems to be a constant budget headache for BPS. The department’s promises last year to trim $10 million from the budget last year never materialized, with $8 million being cut and then much of it added back in as new costs emerged.

Several councilors made clear they want to see change.

“We need to choose to spend less money on transportation and then find ways to make it happen,” Annissa Essaibi-George said.

“We’re trying to balance a budget — it is difficult when folks sit before us and say they’ll save $10 million and then next year don’t save it and ask for an additional $7.9 million,” Tito Jackson said, rebuking staff for asking for a budget increase for next year.

While overall bus ridership declined last year, fuel prices were unexpectedly high (BPS officials say they do not expect the same surprise this year), as were health care costs, the number of students requiring pick up at their door and charter school transportation costs, according to John Hanlon, BPS chief of operations, and Eleanor Laurans, executive director of school finance. Further costs came from a legal change requiring that homeless children receive transportation from shelters or other temporary lodging to their original school for the entire academic year, even if they become permanently housed in another community. Previously, BPS only provided such students with transportation for the first 90 days after they lost permanent housing. As a result, the number of such children served shot up from 253 in Fiscal Year 2016 to 2,392 in Fiscal Year 2017.

Hanlon said high costs does not always mean poor practice.

“The transportation line within Boston Public Schools absolutely represents the equity line,” Hanlon said.

Why are BPS’s transit costs are so high? In part because the district serves a high number of special education students who require pick up at their doors, so while overall ridership has declined, the number of stops has increased over the past five years. Another cost driver is that the district puts emphasis on providing families with a wide range of school choice, Hanlon said. Other factors beyond district control are the requirement that it pay for transporting students to parochial and charter schools.

A small portion of students account for the majority of the expenses. Students served by door-to-door pick up comprised 11 percent of all yellow bus riders in Fiscal Year 2017, but 37 percent of the transit costs, according to BPS data. Charter students are 11 percent of riders but 13 percent of costs. The approximately 1 percent of students were transported to parochial schools comprised 2 percent of transit costs. The less than 1 percent of students transported to private special education placements constituted about 7 percent of overall costs.

Meanwhile, transit for about 66 percent of students comprises only about 20 percent of costs, Hanlon said.

Home-based system and BuildBPS

Some savings are on the horizon, but still many years off. When BPS switched to a home-based system, most newly-enrolling children signed up for schools near their homes. With more children no longer qualifying for bus service, BPS has a greater opportunity at saving on transportation. This move, and requiring grade 7 and 8 students to use the MBTA, has reduced some costs, Hanlon said.

However, students who already were attending a school when the home-based system was launched were allowed to continue at their current location, and their siblings are allowed to attend the same schools when they turn of age. As such, BPS will not fully enjoy the transit ease promised by neighborhood schools until the grandfathered in students and their siblings (some of whom still may not yet be in school) graduate from high school or transfer out of BPS.

It takes a critical mass of students switching off bus use to allow for dropping a route, and its associated cost. Even if only one or two students attend a far-off school, BPS will have to pay for a vehicle to take them there, although the bus potentially can share transport to other schools along the way, should start times and routing allow. In some routes where ridership is very low, it can cost $70,000 to $80,000 per child to run a bus, Hanlon said. Some parochial schools have between one and five students on a bus at a given time, according to BPS.

Some easement also may come from BuildBPS, the facilities plan that was created with a consideration of investing in buildings in areas where the surrounding population is expected to grow, Hanlon said. Investments also may make the schools more attractive to children who already live nearby but currently choose not to attend, he said.

Don’t save the seat

Hanlon is putting some hope on encouraging parents who typically provide other transit for their children to opt out of a bus seat. BPS officials estimate that 30 percent of bus seats are provided (and paid for) for children who regularly do not use them. Hanlon said he expects parents do this to keep a back pocket option in case of unexpected disruption to their normal routine. However, he said, bus drivers are informed to accept any ridership of any student, even those not on their list. Students also may opt back in to the bus system, although currently it takes about a week to update lists, a lag BPS seeks to reduce.

Hanlon added a warning that BPS has used various bus contractors with different terms in regards to the costs BPS must assume. As such, looking through past records of transit costs may not capture the full picture, if the negotiation terms changed.

Health on a dime

The department of Food and Nutrition services is responsible for serving up healthy, nutritious, locally-sourced food, with lunch and breakfast offered at no cost to students. But the department funds these meals on a paltry $1.43 in reimbursement per lunch meal served, and only 94 cents per breakfast meal served. Afterschool suppers are supported with $2.52 per meal.

It may not be surprising that Laura Benavidez, executive director for Food and Nutrition Services at BPS, says the department’s net loss of $171,000 this year is the best end balance it’s had in 13 years. Food and Nutrition Services rely on federal reimbursements and a state grant that must be re-applied for every four years, this year included. But in recent years, BPS general funds have been brought in to cover cost overruns.

If schools make meals that go unselected by students, the schools do not receive reimbursement for the labor and food costs that went into that meal. As such, department staff members believe it is critical to encourage more students to choose school meals. For the sake of good nutrition, the department also is concerned with ensuring that meals served end up in stomachs, not trashcans.

Benavidez spoke of the importance of starting to treat children more like customers — that is, like customers that need to be enticed and won over with appealing presentation and aroma.

“Our children eat with their eyes as we do as adults,” Benavidez said.

At 25 percent of schools, food is prepared in the kitchen on site, where the scents waft out into the cafeteria and students receive well-presented food, Benavidez said. However, at the remaining 75 percent of schools, staff receive frozen meals to reheat in plastic wrap. The result can be far less appealing, and visually more reminiscent of airplane food. Improvement ideas include piloting a program to conduct food prep at East Boston High School and transport assembled meals to nearby schools, aiming at more appealing and fresher food provision. BPS officials seek to use improved data tracking and assessment in order to identify which menu items and combinations are popular to encourage meal participation, and to bolster a culture in which kitchen staff have autonomy in ordering and management, which they expect will reduce food waste.

Given that many children receive 30 to 50 percent of their daily food intake at schools, it is vital to ensure the food is nutritional, said Benavidez. Both BPS officials and several councilors spoke of the potential to use local urban farm produce in the food, to ensure freshness and to boost local economies.

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