New York has the highest school transportation costs in the country, and they have been growing at a rapid pace, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit organization that advocates for government and spending reform.
Last week the CBC unveiled an interactive map that shows transportation spending in every district in the state. The data includes the total amount of money spent on transportation, the per pupil cost and the percentage of spending reimbursed by the state. In New York, the reimbursement rate for transportation ranges from 6.5 percent to 90 percent.
In the Capital Region, per pupil transportation costs vary, according to the interactive map.
On the web
To view the Citizens Budget Commission's interactive map of transportation spending in every district in the state, click HERE.
For example, the Schenectady City School District spent $7.9 million on transportation from 2010 to 2011, at a per pupil cost of about $754. The smaller Scotia-Glenville Central School District spent $1.89 million on transportation during the same period, at a per pupil cost of $690, while the Saratoga Springs City School District spent $4.1 million on transportation, at a per pupil cost of $605. The more rural Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District spent about $2 million on student transportation, at a per pupil cost of $1,005, while the Amsterdam City School District spent $3.9 million on transportation, at a per pupil cost of $1,012.
Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the CBC, said New York is an expensive state, and its transportation costs reflect that.
But she also said the state’s poorly designed formulas for determining state transportation aid, as well as unusual state transportation requirements, make the cost of transporting students to and from school higher than it should be. She noted that New York, unlike many other states, requires that transportation be provided for most private and parochial school students.
New York also transports a higher percentage of students, as many districts bus students at shorter distances from school than state regulations require. Three-quarters of the state’s students are transported to school, and upstate the figure is closer to 85 percent, according to the CBC. Only Pennsylvania and Connecticut transport a greater percentage, and nationally the average is about 60 percent.
Schools outside New York City are required to provide transportation for students in grades K-8 who live more than 2 miles from school and for students in grades 9-12 who live more than 3 miles from school, up to a maximum of 15 miles. New York schools are also required to transport students with disabilities up to 50 miles.
“We made a decision in New York that transportation was going to be part of the package,” Lynam said. “A lot of districts have expanded and extended [bus service]. But do we need to pick up everyone within a half mile of the school?”
Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York Association for Public Transportation, said his organization has some issues with the CBC report.
“Transportation is a service for the kids, and the expenses we incur isn’t something transportation creates by itself,” he said. The state has committed to a higher level of service than other states, and its costs are higher as a result. “We do things other states don’t do,” he said, noting that New York has a good safety record because the state requires more frequent inspections.
But Mannella also said the CBC report is unfair because it doesn’t recognize that transportation spending increases have slowed. Last year’s transportation spending increase was about $65 million, down from a recent peak of about $100 million.
Mannella said it isn’t always possible to make transportation more efficient.
“There comes a point when you are not going to be able to get more kids on a bus, no matter what route you use,” he said. In addition, students with disabilities sometimes require personal transportation, accompanied by a nurse. He also defended the practice of picking up kids who live within what is considered a walkable distance to school, noting that many homes are located in areas that lack sidewalks or border busy roads.
“The road I live on is a winding road with no sidewalks along a river,” Mannella said. “There’s no place to walk.”
According to the CBC, pupil transportation costs New York $2.97 billion per year, about 5.7 percent of total school funding, with state aid accounting for $1.63 billion, or 56 percent, of the cost. The remainder is funded by local school districts. In 2010, New York’s school districts spent an average of $1,100 per pupil on transportation, well above the national average of $459. Between 2001 and 2010, the cost of transportation in New York more than doubled.
“Transportation spending is taking up a bigger piece of the pie,” Lynam said. “It’s growing.”
The CBC believes that New York’s state transportation aid formulas provide too much aid to wealthy districts, and fail to provide incentives for districts to contain costs. There are six funding formulas, and districts are allowed to select the most favorable one.
“There’s less pressure on wealthy districts to contain costs because they can spend,” Lynam said. “In Long Island, the costs are higher.” Transportation costs also tend to run higher in rural areas, where the student body is more likely to be spread out and isolated, while urban districts often have more special-education students, who can be expensive to transport.
The CBC has also released a report, titled “Better Targeting New York’s Pupil Transportation Aid,” that contains two recommendations for reducing student transportation costs: Simplify the formulas, and lower the overall reimbursement rate.
If transportation aid is reduced, districts will have an incentive to find other ways to save money, such as sharing routes, coordinating special education transportation and centralizing maintenance needs and inventory, the report says.
NYAPT also has some ideas for reducing the cost of transportation. One is bell time coordination. Mannella said if schools would do a better job of coordinating their bells, perhaps it would be possible to use fewer buses within a district.