The $700,000 that the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District spends on buses each year may be an area of possible savings in the fiscal 2014 budget, several School Committee members said on Thursday.
The School Committee has been reviewing an initial version of a $29.1 million fiscal 2014 budget based on a level services that has spending up by $247,800, but a forecasted drop in revenue by $2.08 million could mean that a level service budget could require a 10 percent increase in contribution from the towns.
The district did receive $251,000 this year in state transportation funding because it is a regional school district. The budget is planned to include the same state funding in fiscal 2014.
Next year's budget calls for spending $715,000 on buses, up 1.1 percent over this year. But the School District is in its final year of a contract with Salter Transportation.
The contract will be opened to bids and Assistant Superintendent for Finance Peter Gray said it would be important to seek multiple bidders to force competition and possibly drive down the cost. When the contract was awarded last time, Salter was the only bidder.
Larry Swartz, School Committee vice-chairman, said that it would be important for the district to find a way to spur competition from multiple bus companies to submit bids.
“The biggest thing is to get some competition,” Swartz said.
Gray recognized the lack of competition as an issue, noting that many bus companies are territorial and one company will not bid on contracts in areas considered to belong to another company.
The cost of transportation was part of a review of the fiscal 2014 budget on Thursday night by the School Committee. The committee also took an in-dept look at the 2014 budget for the elementary schools, special education and information technology.
It was the cost of transportation that caught School Committee member’s attention.
“That is a big number,” said member Barbara Lawrence, later adding that the school district should work to come up with creative ways to reduce the cost.
Bill Dery, a School Committee member, said several buses show up at the high school filled “less than 50 percent.” He called it “cost inefficient.”
Gray said the district, and in turn the contractor, need to plan to pick up every student even if they never ride the bus.
Lawrence suggested that district look at a way of obtaining a waiver from students who never plan to use the bus.
“I’m sure there are parents that would say we are never going to use it and would opt out officially,” she said.
That, she said, could eliminate “ghost-like expenses.”
In addition to half-empty buses showing up at the high school, other committee members said that the traffic backup at the middle school and high school at opening and closing time indicate many students drive to school or are dropped off.
“Based on the traffic on 1A a lot of people are getting dropped off,” said Bill Wilson, a School Committee member.
The traffic backup has been a “bone of contention,” Gray said, noting there is not a lot that can be done to reduce it. School leaders had considered a drop-off fee, for example, “but that wouldn’t fly,” Gray said.