Broward scrutinizes bus service to charter schools


Some question whether Broward’s school bus department is losing money by serving charter school students. The district insists that’s not the case.

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The Broward School Board meets in a workshop starting at 10 a.m. at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Center Board Room, 600 SE Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. The transportation discussion is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

Broward’s school district is taking a closer look at the hourly rates it charges charter schools for student bus transportation, after a community task force repeatedly questioned whether Broward is losing money on the arrangement.

If the $47 an hour is insufficient to cover the district’s costs, it is in effect subsidizing the competition and could be contributing to the budget woes in the transportation department, where Broward outspends every other large Florida district.

Transportation issues are on the agenda for the Broward School Board’s Tuesday workshop.

Superintendent Robert Runcie insists that the district is at least breaking even with its charter bus service. But the chairman of the Facilities Task Force, a citizen group that advises the district, has estimated that it should be charging more than $50 an hour (if not higher) for bus service to recoup its in-house costs. Those costs include not just the salary paid to bus drivers, but also fuel costs, vehicle wear and tear and administrative expenses.

“Why do we bother doing this?” task force chairman Andrew Ladanowski asked district staff during public discussion of the issue last week. “Just focus on ourselves.”

Chimed in task force member Curtis Hodge: “Our schools are struggling ... I don’t think we should be providing services to the competitor.”

For about a decade, Broward has bused students to and from a handful of charter schools, though most charters turn to privately run companies for their busing needs. Broward is not obligated to make its buses available to charters, and Miami-Dade’s school district does not bus charter school students.

Only two local charter schools, Coral Springs Charter and Eagle’s Nest Charter, currently receive bus service from the district — serving about 320 students. Phone calls to the schools’ principals were not returned Monday. Likewise, the principal at Lauderdale Lakes’ Central Charter School (which pays the district to provide vehicle inspections) did not return a call Monday.

Last year, five charter schools paid Broward to bus their students, at a rate of $44 an hour. The district last month raised its rate to $47 an hour, though Transportation Assistant Director Eric Chisem said that raise wasn’t due to the task force’s concerns. Broward reviews its rate annually to see if an increase is needed, Chisem said.

Chisem did credit the task force as contributing to the district’s decision to launch a thorough review of its calculation methods and in-house costs for bus service for charter schools. That review will likely include input from the district’s chief auditor, Patrick Reilly.

One possible change that has emerged so far: Chisem said the district is legally entitled to add a 5 percent administrative surcharge for bus transit it provides to charter schools. That surcharge is not being levied right now.

Nevertheless, district administrators, along with Runcie, say they are confident Broward doesn’t lose money on its charter bus service because the district’s service agreements require payment for a guaranteed minimum number of hours — but on some days Broward’s buses work less than that minimum.

“To be very, very clear, the district’s contract is structured in a way that it’s not just about the hourly rate that’s being charged,” Runcie said.

While Broward dissects its own internal costs in providing bus service, the district will also have to wrestle with another question: What is its goal in selling services to charters? Is it enough to break even? Should the district be charging higher market rates to shore up its own budget?

Runcie said the district has not decided on its financial goals when partnering with charters. The issue will likely have significance beyond just bus service, as the school district has been considering the formation of a department that would provide various specialized services to charters, such as student psychological care.

“It’s a way for the district to make money,” said School Board member Robin Bartleman. Bartleman said she would be “disappointed” if it turned out that Broward’s bus agreements were, in fact, doing the opposite.

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