Broward County adding GPS tracking to school buses

With the twin goals of saving money and providing more reliable service, Broward’s school district is spending big — more than $3 million over the next five years — to install GPS navigation systems on more than 1,300 school buses.

The system-wide technology upgrade, which also includes student-tracking ID badges that document when and where children board the bus, is Broward’s latest attempt to fix its long-troubled transportation department.

For years, Broward’s school buses have been a budget drain — the district spends more per mile than any other large school system in the state — but in August the buses became an operational nightmare as well. The first few weeks of the school year were marked by widespread busing problems that included late buses, no-show buses, and confusion over which bus a child was supposed to take (thanks to student bus passes not arriving in the mail on time).

The bus fiasco prompted thousands of parent complaints, and ultimately led to the resignation of the school district’s transportation director.

Now Superintendent Robert Runcie touts the new GPS system as a chance to finally get things right.

“It’s going to give us accuracy, it’s going to give us accountability and a level of exactness,” Runcie said. “When you call, we’re going to know where the bus is.”

The GPS contract, approved by School Board members earlier this week, is with Montana-based Education Logistics, which has provided bus-routing software to Broward for more than two decades. More commonly referred to as Edulog, the firm boasts contracts with more than 1,300 school districts throughout the United States and Canada.

By the end of the next school year, Broward parents may even be able to pull up the location of their child’s school bus on their home computer or smart phone. Runcie said getting the GPS up and running will be the first priority, but parent tools are going to be phased in later.

If implemented properly, the GPS system and student tracking ID cards should prevent any parent from experiencing the anxiety that Debbie Colangelo felt last August. Colangelo spent more than 40 minutes driving around town frantically trying to find her two middle school-age daughters — both of whom had been mistakenly dropped off by the school bus about seven miles away from home.

Colangelo called the technology upgrades a good idea that “sounds cool,” but she questioned whether the school district can afford it. About $1 million of the price tag is being paid for with financial reserves from its capital improvement fund — essentially a savings account for rainy-day expenses. That pot of money also pays for school renovations, and Broward has a long list of leaky roofs and other building needs that it says it can’t afford to fix.

“There are more basic things that need to be done with the money,” Colangelo said. “Technology doesn’t matter if your roofs are caving in, or if kids have to sit next to a bucket filling with water during a rainstorm.”

School district activist Andrew Ladanowski is more optimistic. Ladanowski chairs the Facilities Task Force — a citizen committee that has studied both aging school buildings and the district’s bloated school bus budget.

Ladanowski said the GPS system makes the actions of bus drivers “100 percent transparent.” The school district will suddenly know if drivers are obeying the speed limit, properly stopping at railroad crossings, or making unauthorized pit stops to boost their hourly pay.

Ladanowski also believes the new technology could help reduce student absenteeism, since parents and schools can immediately know if a child didn’t get on the bus that morning.

Ultimately, though, Ladanowski said the worth of the system will be judged on whether it saves the district significant money. In theory, adding GPS should enable the district to design more efficient bus routes by using the latest up-to-date information on traffic patterns, road construction and the time it takes to travel between stops. Electronic student tracking, meanwhile, could help consolidate bus routes that aren’t serving many students, and give the district a more accurate count of its total bus ridership.

The district has struggled with that count time and again, causing it to lose millions in state funding over the years.

When presenting the proposed contract to School Board members, Edulog President Jason Corbally said the GPS and student tracking systems usually pay for themselves over time. School district staff also predicted the technology would save money, though they didn’t promise a specific amount.

Still, board members were divided on the proposal. It passed on a 6-3 vote, with board members Patricia Good, Donna Korn, and Nora Rupert voting no. Rupert called the $3 million price tag higher than expected, while Korn was in favor of the GPS installation, but wanted the student tracking technology postponed for now.

“The fact that the two were married, and could not be separated, for me that was a surprise,” Korn said Friday, adding that fixing school roofs and improving school safety are more pressing needs than creating a student ID system. The student tracking system accounts for about $1.2 million of the $3 million cost.

Some board members suggested easing into GPS with a cheaper small-scale pilot program. Runcie and a majority of the board resisted, however, as the district has been burned by a piecemeal approach in the past.

In 2007, the district spent nearly $900,000 buying GPS equipment from a different company, but that purchase was for only the first phase of the equipment installation. When the economy crashed and school funding plummeted, the district was forced to freeze its GPS spending and could never buy the software needed to actually use the units it had already installed.

Just before the vote to approve this new system, School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson expressed confidence that the student tracking cards will improve the bus ridership counts — resulting in additional funding.

“It takes an investment to bring a return,” she said.

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