State auditor slams Department of Education for lax oversight of school bus program

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Aug 31 2012 07:12:28 PM HST
Updated On: Sep 01 2012 08:07:22 AM HST

The state auditor's report shows the DOE's questionable practices.

HONOLULU -

Thirteen years ago an audit of the Student Transportation Services program under the Department of Accounting and General Services showed problems with rate setting, contract monitoring, and financial controls.

According to a report released Friday by State Auditor Marion Higa, those problems have only grown worse, especially after the school bus program was transferred to the Department of Education in July, 2000.

The 60-page document says school bus routes have not been evaluated for cost, efficiency or safety. There's also been little evaluation of more than 800 routes or how to possibly consolidate them. Meanwhile, a lack of contract oversight has resulted in rising costs.

"This validates what we've been saying all along, that our school bus transportation program had serious deficiencies; that it was not being run well," state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chair of the Education Committee, told KITV4.

Assistant School Superintendent Ray L'Heureux was hired eight weeks ago, and has been tapped as the point man to reform the school bus program. Although he takes issue with some of the harsh language contained in the auditor's report, he generally agrees with all of the findings.

"Nobody likes getting punched in the nose," he said, "but it's a valid audit."

According to the audit, the cost of Student Transportation Services has increased three-fold since 2006 to $72.4 million. During the past legislative session, the DOE requested $75 million to fund the program for the current school year, but lawmakers settled on $25 million.

The DOE was able to secure another $11.5 million from one-time funds, which brought the current cost of running school bus service to $36.5 million. However, the Board of Education was left scrambling and cut 74 routes, forcing more than 2,000 students to find alternative transportation.

"If those painful cuts can result in some significant changes today, and the results of this audit report can result in some real changes in the way we do Bus Transportation Services going forward, then we're going to be better for it," said Tokuda, who plans on holding a legislative briefing on Higa's findings.

In a written response to the audit, Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the DOE has already embarked on a course that will reform how school buses operate.

She wrote the department wants to spur competition, modernize routes through computer software, and give the DOE maximum flexibility to analyze proposed contracts.

In June, the Management Partnership Services Inc. was awarded a contract for $109,000 to scrutinize the school bus program. A report is due in November, and even harsh critics like Ken Levasseur believe the DOE is on the right path.

"I have to commend Kathryn Matayoshi, she is doing everything that is needed to get student transportation back where it should be," said Levasseur, a former lobbyist for bus contractors, who now drives for Gomes School Bus Service, LTD.

Among the more egregious findings in the audit is the DOE's commitment to pay the general excise tax for 75 bus contractors to the tune of $2.2 million. The report also found the DOE paid some contractors $100 per day for every school bus that remained idle for up to 180 days.

Although the DOE ultimately saved $1.35 million in school year 2012 by allowing 22 school buses to remain idle, the policy resulted in bus contractors being awarded $412,574 in compensation.

L'Heureux said the policy on idle buses is one of the items that will be corrected through Management Partnership Services' examination of the program.

"We have to go back and look at our own procurement law, not only ours, but certainly the state as well," he said. "There might be some statutes that need to be changed with regards to how we procure those contracts."

L'Heureux said changes to the school bus program would be initiated before the start of the next school year, and some routes that were cut could be restored. However, that doesn't mean other routes won't be streamlined or eliminated in the future.

"I think everything is on the table," said L'Heureux. "You have to look at all options and examine every possibility of how you make this thing flatter in terms of architecture."

According to the DOE, an estimated 39,000 public school students ride the school bus. The department also provides free curb-to-curb service to approximately 4,000 special education students.

Total enrollment in the statewide school system this year stands at 181,213, an increase of 1.7 percent compared to the previous year.

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