Scrimp on school-bus safety to save Columbus schools $6 million?

Jul 2, 2013 by

By Bill Bush –

The largest potential savings to Columbus City Schools’ transportation operation — getting someone else to pay for busing charter-school students — was dropped from a final report discussed yesterday by a subcommittee of Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s education commission.

Instead, the $12.8 million that could have been saved by charging for charter-school busing was replaced by a proposal to lobby the state to relax Ohio’s tough school-bus safety regulations — such as requiring higher seat backs, two roof-escape hatches, side-mounted stop signs and other safety features.

“Tight Ohio school-bus regulations lead to fewer national school-bus contractors able to compete for contracts, leading to higher costs,” the revised report said.

Eric Fingerhut, an education adviser to Coleman who heads the mayor’s education commission, said that many are “deeply skeptical” that Ohio buses are safer than those of other states.

Fingerhut asked to see the data that would compare student fatalities from school-bus crashes. He expressed dismay that district officials seemed reluctant to alter the bus standards, which the report said could save up to $6.1 million a year.

“I do not support anything that would reduce the safety,” responded Steve Simmons, the district director of transportation, who noted that there has been only one inside-the-bus fatality from a crash in Ohio in the past 48 years, a figure he thinks “is directly attributed to the construction safety standards in Ohio.”

Paolo DeMaria, a consultant being paid by the education commission to lead the discussion on cost reductions, said yesterday that he wasn’t aware the charter-school proposal had been replaced by the school-bus safety option, and said he wasn’t responsible for drafting the final report.

Mary Jo Hudson, who is heading the special subcommittee that is reviewing cost reductions for the mayor’s education commission, said the proposal dropped the issue of trying to get reimbursed for charter-school transportation because it was “futile” to try to change that state law.

“We were trying to come back with what’s realistic,” Hudson said.

Despite Fingerhut wanting to relax school-bus regulations, both Hudson and committee member Gary Baker, a Columbus school board member, pushed back on the idea. Hudson said the committee should not compromise on safety to save money, and Baker challenged Fingerhut to show data proving that the community wanted this debate.

Another of the report’s cost-cutting proposals, to use cheaper and less-nutritious food in school meals, also isn’t going anywhere, Hudson said after the meeting.

Among the other ideas to save money: changing employee benefits.

But Cynthia Picciano, the district’s human-resources director, said that would be complex to implement. All changes must be negotiated with two unions, who have different benefits plans.

In addition, she said, the new Federal Affordable Care Act might conflict with some changes to save money. For example, the new law would require the district to give benefits to substitute teachers who work more than 30 hours a week, Picciano said.

Also yesterday, a district millage committee sent a tentative bond-levy recommendation of 1.16 mills to the school board for the November ballot. The money would go toward new school construction and improved technology.

The millage would be leveraged to raise $200 million by issuing bonds, with about $25 million earmarked for new technology initiatives and the rest going toward building and renovating schools. One mill could finance the construction of about 10 new schools, including one high school, officials were told last week.

If the tax issue is approved, it likely would cost a district resident about $40 more a year per $100,000 of home valuation.

via Scrimp on school-bus safety to save Columbus schools $6 million? | The Columbus Dispatch.

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