LETTER TO THE EDITOR: School bus contractor a dying breed

Well, another legislative session has come and gone, and the governor and state legislature have failed us again. We requested a minimum of 3 percent and received nothing. Some in the school bus contracting community are finding it difficult to remain solvent in this business.

It used to be that when a route became available, there was a lot of interest. Not anymore. I’ve talked to several contractors who have even started to turn routes in and walk away from them. These are usually minimum-mileage routes which are unprofitable. They are doing this because these short routes are a drain on their overall business.

To put this into perspective, a minimum 30-mile route downstate, not including capital allowance (cost of the bus), pays just over $22,000 per year. Out of that, you must pay a driver, related employment expenses, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and repairs. Repairs are the wild card. Have to replace a turbo? $3,500. ECM (computer)? $4,000. It is obvious why these are being turned back. The current financial climate we find ourselves in is unsustainable!

The Facts: Our current governor has put forth seven budgets during his term. Of those seven, five recommended a 0 percent increase, and two we were subject to a 2 1/2 percent cut in our reimbursement. The legislature intervened and gave us a 1 percent increase for three of those seven years. During that same seven-year period, the Consumer Price Index has increased 13.2 percent, based on data at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website. That translates to a loss of over 10 percent during that same period.

The legislature convened a committee, last year, to look into school bus funding and the costs involved in operating a bus. Their recommendation was that there needs to be an effort made to rectify the funding disparity in the formula.

The Problem: The formula that is used to compensate us is outdated. The formula was established in 1977 and has not kept pace with the cost of doing business. The school bus of today is a very sophisticated piece of equipment.

The cost of equipment and repairs has risen dramatically since 2008, due, in part, to emission requirements implemented by the EPA. Most of the major components are covered for five years under warranty.

The initial warranties started running out in 2013. Now, the cost of these repairs is falling on the contractor. We must take our buses to a shop that has the proper software and equipment to work on them. My mechanic, at the shop where we take our buses, tells me that 80-90 percent of delinquent accounts on his books are those of school bus contractors. This should not be!

The Solution: The formula needs to be revamped from top to bottom to bring it in line with today’s reality of the cost of operating a school bus. The legislature needs to give a 10 percent increase to put the train back on the tracks.

This can be phased in over a two- or three-year period. Legislation needs to be enacted to tie annual increases to the previous year’s CPI. Doing this will, at least, allow us to keep pace with the ever-increasing cost of doing business.

I have devoted 32 years of my life to school busing. Despite all the issues and problems that we face, I still enjoy it and believe it’s my calling in life. School bus contractors are some of the most dedicated people you will find. We get up at 4 a.m. some mornings to check road conditions, have to jump behind the wheel at a moment’s notice to fill in for a driver, have to be ready to respond to a breakdown or accident, and occasionally deal with an irate parent. It’s not for the faint of heart.

But I wonder, who will take over when this current generation’s time is up? Will the state be forced to take over busing, or is that their end game? If so, please let me know ASAP so I can make an educated decision as to what to do with my future and my buses.

Robert I. Koppenhaver
RJK Transportation Inc.
Houston

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