Out-of-control costs force systemic school bus changes

By Lara Yamada
Published On: Feb 20 2013 07:34:00 AM HST

It's taken countless meetings, scathing reports, and even an FBI investigation to expose Hawaii's failing school bus transportation system. Now, a solution.

HONOLULU -

Consultants who came in late last year to help crack the problem say they've never seen anything like it: a budget, that in just six years, nearly tripled to $75 million.

They also found a system so antiquated, that data was being written down on index cards.

But that was then. Now the seeds of change are growing for a solution that’s finally hit the road.

“This is probably the largest geographic area in the state,” said Kealakehe High School vice principal Alan Vogt.

By simply tapping a coded card to a square pad, the students at Kealahehe on the Big Island became part of a pilot program to help solve a huge problem for the state.

“My honeymoon period for this was about two seconds,” said Ray L'Heureux.

When L’Heureux started as assistant superintendent in July 2012, the Department of Education was already dealing with a school bus system driving out of control -- with no clear path on how to fix it.

“How do we know which kids are registered for what buses, out of what schools, and actually getting on those buses? Nobody could provide me with those answers,” he said.

A scathing audit and consultants report found years of spotty data, staff unprepared to handle complex bus contracts, and no technology to track who was going where.

To save money, a desperate DOE suggested a four-day school week, staggering school start times to accommodate bus service, and even putting buses once considered too old to run back into circulation.

The department ended up cutting more than 100 bus routes, impacting more than 2,000 students at 51 schools statewide.

“I feel that we lost the confidence of parents, said L’Heureux.

“All we did was pick up, and take the ball and run,” said David Oasay, who is the director of operations for Iosepa Transportation.

“We've got air conditioning, seat belts, overhead racks, high-back seats, and we can show exactly what happened at that time with cameras on the bus,” he told reporter Lara Yamada on one of the company’s buses at a small bus yard in Kona on the Big Island.

Iosepa Transportation, with its small fleet of well-equipped and technologically prepared buses, provided L'Heureux with the platform for a different strategy: find out what’s happening with every bus, on every route, at any point in time.

Vice Principal Vogt had no idea what was about to fall on his watch.

“It kind of caught me off guard. What? Z-Pass?” he said.

On Jan. 3rd, the Department of Education launched a pilot program to install GPS tracking software on all of Iosepa's buses and issue Z-Pass coded cards to each student riding those buses.

“We can track the path of each of the buses, where they pick up their kids, the times, the speed, idle time,” said Oasay.

“You can see exactly where they are right now,” began Zonar Regional Account Manager Kyle Bruny showing KITV Zonar’s tracking system on a laptop computer sitting in the back of his car. 

“And this is the current speed that they're going?” asked Oasay.

“Yep,” replied Bruny, showing an animated map with a small bus icon moving down a nearby street.

They've already discovered that one bus was traveling exactly the same route as another bus.

At a cost of $120 a day, 180 days of service a year, a six-year contract that started in July, they found the state has already overpaid $130,000 for one bus to sit idle.

“And that's just in one, small geographic population in the state. So, think about this for a minute. Where is that replicated? I'll find them,” said L’Heureux.

“At first people think of it as big brother, but after they use it for a while, they realize it's not. It's actually a kevlar jacket for the driver, because most of the time, the drivers are doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing and that proves that fact,” said Bruny.

Iosepa driver Donavan Correa said he has a universal pass for the occasional forgotten card, but says nearly all of the students are doing their part.

“I think it's a better system all together. It's easier. It takes a lot of guess work out of the driver,” said Correa.

Right now,11 companies are running 700 buses on five islands.

In June, 44 out 99 contracts will expire.

L'Heureux has informed vendors new contract models will now be based on the best overall package, not just the lowest bid, and require all buses be equipped with vehicle and student tracking technology.

He says it will cost companies about $2 a day, per bus, to run the new technology, but expects the returns in efficiency will pay that back and then some, for those companies and for the state.

“There's a standard now. We are setting the bar a little bit higher,” said Oasay.

It has become a 21st century drive with no turning back.

“There's a lot of work to do still, but finally there's momentum,” said L’Heureux.

L'Heureux said they don't have a good assessment, yet, on just how much this will save the state.

But, by 2014, when most buses will have tracking systems, he expects to see some very, clear changes and cost savings.

Also, by next school year, parents will also be able to track those buses online, in real time. 

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