By BECKY BOHRER
HONOLULU — Members of the state Board of Education on Tuesday questioned the cost and benefit of following a consultant’s recommendations and overhauling Hawaii’s student transportation program.
Management Partnership Services was hired to review the state busing system amid concerns about rising costs. The consultant found the system needs substantive changes.
In its report, it cited problems with procurement rules and contracting, noting the cost of school bus contracts has risen sharply since 2006. It also cited poor training of the state staff overseeing the nearly $70 million program. The consultant said a multi-year commitment to change would be necessary, and that it believed both the state and Department of Education are “committed and able to undertake this critical transformation.”
A department spokeswoman on Monday said the department will have to determine what changes it believes can be implemented and the board will have to approve any changes. Legislative approval would be needed for any procurement changes. The next legislative session opens in January.
During a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, several board members said they felt pressure to find a solution, given the public attention to the problem, but there were questions about how successful — and realistic — the consultant’s approach was. Uncertain, too, is the cost of implementation.
Tom Platt, president of Management Partnership Services, said his firm lays out the ideal for its clients, and those clients see success with the recommendations they follow. He said he’s never seen a situation where investing in management has failed to yield dividends.
The report followed a highly critical state audit that found the department had “lost control” of the busing program and “ineffective and unsystematic” management had resulted in soaring costs. The audit, released in August, came as dozens of routes were eliminated or consolidated this school year because of a $17 million shortfall for student transportation.
Management Partnership Services said the aggregate cost of school bus contracts increased by 151.6 percent during the four years following the 2005-06 school term, primarily due to an increase in rates paid when contracts were renewed or rebid. The department hired the firm in September to look at the busing program, and recommend changes.
Currently 717 buses — 100 fewer than last school year — provided by 12 contractors, are used to transport more than 35,000 students a day. The program is overseen by 14 department employees. Contract costs come out to about $86,500 per active bus route and about $1,750 per student, which Management Partnership Services said “far exceed national norms, and are comparable to the most expensive student transportation operations MPS has worked with throughout North America.”
“The absence of a strong business-centric approach to this critical education support function has resulted in a severe escalation of cost that far exceeds any rational inflationary explanation,” the consultant wrote.
Board member Wesley Lo said there must be some “quick wins” but said this may be a situation that calls for incremental rather than “revolutionary” change. He questioned how fast the Legislature could move to make changes to state laws and procurement rules — and whether legislation could be drafted to be taken up during the coming session.
Board Chairman Don Horner said there are no quick fixes — that systemic change is needed — and recognizing there is a problem is a first step toward addressing it.
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