Broward school bus service shake-up yielded lower savings than expected


Broward’s revamped schools bus service was supposed to save big money this year, but those savings came in much smaller than expected.

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Broward School Board members on Tuesday abandoned a proposal to create a district-run charter school, citing concerns over governance structure and how the public would perceive the district becoming a charter operator. The charter was proposed as a grade 6-12 construction-oriented vocational school. The district still plans to open a school with that curriculum, but it will be a traditional district school, not a charter.

The Broward School district’s overhaul of school bus service — a shake-up that led to widespread mishaps — is expected to yield less than $3 million in cost savings this year, district leaders announced Tuesday.

That figure is dramatically lower than the $14 million in cost savings that Superintendent Robert Runcie promised when pitching his operational changes during last year’s budget process. Relying in part on those rosy projections, Broward School Board members approved spending extra money on teacher raises and restoring electives such as music and art to elementary schools.

Now the district has to scramble to make up the budget shortfall. Broward plans to dip into the financial reserves from its self-insurance fund to close the budget gap, and district leaders promised that classroom-related departments would not be affected.

“It will not be coming out of our classrooms,” School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson said.

District administrators cited several factors as contributing to transportation’s disappointing budget performance. The district had hoped to cut costs by running fewer bus routes, but instead the total number of routes grew; a switch to computerized employee payroll was expected to save money, but that system took longer than expected to be up and running; finally, lower-than-projected student ridership cost the district nearly $2 million in state funding, which further ate away at the budget.

“We could probably do a better job in the forecasting,” said Chief Strategy & Operations Officer Maurice Woods. District leaders stressed that, while falling short of its spending targets, Broward is still succeeding in the overarching goal of shrinking its transportation costs — this year’s budget is $2.8 million less than last year, and $7.2 million less than two years ago.

Woods also said the busing problems at the start of the year — in which the district received thousands of complaints of late buses, no-show buses, and other disruptions — had a financial impact. Faced with a parent uproar, the district had to devote extra manpower and resources to fix what Woods called the “Back-to-School Debacle.”

Runcie called the early-year busing problems a “crisis,” and he publicly apologized for them again on Tuesday. Former Transportation Director Chester Tindall, who was recruited by Runcie, announced his resignation in December. Tindall’s combative leadership style was widely blamed for contributing to the dysfunction in Broward’s busing service.

“I’m as disappointed as anyone else here that we haven’t realized the savings that we planned for this year,” Runcie told board members. “It’s a significant shortfall.”

Still, Runcie argued that the ups-and-downs of this year’s bus service were a valuable learning experience, and were a direct consequence of his attempt to challenge the “status quo” of the transportation department. For many years (long before Runcie’s arrival), the department has struggled with issues such as nepotism and overspending. Broward spends more per mile in delivering bus service than any other large district in the state.

“We tried,” Runcie said. “Our execution at the beginning of the year was very bad.”

Board member Nora Rupert, one of Runcie’s strongest critics on the school bus issue, argued that the district could have avoided many of those busing problems, if only it had listened to its own drivers. Long before the start of school, bus drivers publicly complained that their department was being poorly managed, and they warned of a possible meltdown. Tindall was left in charge anyway.

“We had professionals, our bus operator professionals, coming to us all summer long predicting what was going to happen,” Rupert said. “We had the canaries singing for us week after week after week.”

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