In overhauling Broward’s long troubled school bus transportation department, Superintendent Robert Runcie set out to achieve both efficiency and signifcant cost savings — aiming for $14 million this year.
When the first weeks of school were marred by widespread busing problems — including late buses and no-show buses — those changes were questioned. Bus service has since stabilized, but now the system’s finances have hit a bump.
On Tuesday, Broward School Board members were surprised to learn the transportation department is costing more than expected, and could be getting a $2 million reduction in state funding — perhaps because the district botched its state-required ridership paperwork.
Board member Rosalind Osgood called the news a “curveball” that could make it harder for the school district to build community trust. The district’s budget staff found out in December that the state planned to allocate $2 million less in school bus funding than Broward anticipated, though many board members appeared to be first hearing of it Tuesday.
It was board member Nora Rupert, a frequent critic of Runcie’s on the school bus issue, who brought it up, demanding to know why Broward was suddenly at risk of losing the state money. She also asked why the November expenses for transportation were about $500,000 more than the November before.
Broward Chief Strategy & Operations Officer Maurice Woods said Broward’s buses are running over budget on fuel and parts, though the district achieved more than $2 million in savings in earlier months. Regarding the state funding, district leaders were at a loss to fully explain it.
The crux of the issue appeared to be Broward’s special-needs student population, which is funded more generously by the state. (Some disabled students, for example, may need a harness or other equipment to ride the bus safely). In December, Florida’s Department of Education notified Broward that, by its calculation, the district was entitled to nearly $2 million less in per-student transportation funding than Broward had anticipated.
Board member Ann Murray, a former bus driver and transportation supervisor, said it’s possible the district miscounted its special-needs population, but she cautioned that it’s also possible state officials altered their funding formula, which could cost Broward money through no fault of its own. There’s also the possibility Broward could persuade the state to restore the money.
“It’s going to take a little while” to investigate, Murray said. “It’s not over yet.”
Overall, Runcie’s goal of shaving $14 million from transportation’s budget is becoming less likely to materialize — at least this year. Runcie backed away from the number somewhat on Tuesday, saying “this is kind of a building year.”
Runcie said new improvements to the department, such as implementing computerized payroll and a fleet-wide GPS navigation system, should lower costs long term, even if the $14 million savings goal is not met until future years.
Broward’s $1.6 billion budget is large enough that falling short of the $14 million savings goal should not have any impact on the district’s overall financial stability. Where the figure might matter, however, is in the eyes of board members who took the chance of supporting Runcie’s dramatic transportation overhaul, in the hopes it would save money. When bus service was beset with problems early in the year, those same board members endured the wrath of lots of angry parent e-mails and phone calls.
“That change was predicated on substantive savings,” said School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson. “The bottom line is those substantive savings better come in.”