Optimizing Transportation Efficiencies in a Cross District Consortium:
The Collaborative Role of ESC and ITC Partnerships
Michael L. Fuller, PhD
Muskingum Valley ESC
This project will save money for 20 school districts and one board of developmental disabilities by creating a shared services transportation consortium to streamline and eliminate bus routes; track student ridership; reduce time to transport students; and share parking and bus garage centers. In addition, an online multi-district transportation database to facilitate student scheduling and coordinate communication for various users will be developed. The partnership of four educational service centers and two information technology centers was critical in implementing this project, and will be equally important as the project unfolds.
The cost of transportation for all school districts is increasing. For rural districts the problem is compounded by a decline in state reimbursement for transportation, the unique problems of inadequately maintained rural roads, and the amount of miles traveled. In rural districts, buses travel more miles over rougher terrain and rarely reach bus capacity due to the length of time any individual student is on a bus, compared to suburban and urban districts.
Four years ago, the East Central Ohio ESC, Jefferson County ESC, Muskingum Valley ESC, and the Ohio Valley ESC, as well as the Ohio Mid Eastern Regional Educational Service Agency (OMER-ESA) and the Southeastern Ohio Voluntary Education Cooperative (SEOVEC), formed a collaborative group to explore local district transportation opportunities. Our group focused on a shared services model to increase transportation efficiencies. This eventuated in 20 local school districts and one county board of developmental disabilities agreeing to participate in a Straight A grant proposal to drive down transportation costs and to increase region-wide transportation efficiencies and effectiveness. As an aggregate, this consortium spends nearly $21 million dollars a year transporting public and nonpublic students. While transportation costs continue to climb, enrollment in this consortium has declined by 11,000 students in the past 10 years, a 27 percent decrease.
The proposal failed on the first round, but was awarded a grant of $1,763,900 on round two. By reducing the consortium fleet of more than 400 buses by five percent, and with an additional two percent reduction of transportation operating costs, we are projecting savings of nearly $4 million over the course of the five-year grant.
To drive down costs or realize savings in transportation, bus routes must be reduced or eliminated, time spent in transit must be shortened, bus capacity must be maximized, and transportation centers situated and staffed for multi-district use. These principles are well understood and acted on in private industry, such as UPS and other global carriers. Without a well-integrated and continuously updated data system, cost analyses are often in error, resulting in staffing and busing that typically exceeds actual demands.
Most districts do not have the individual capacity or means to undertake a systematic overhaul of their transportation data infrastructure. They rely on historical management practices to set routes, staff buses and garages, and purchase buses. And they generally restrict their attention to the boundaries of their own districts.
Our consortium members agreed to work together to map student addresses and routes, and associated transportation and school locations; to utilize a common transportation database; and to regularly meet to review and consider within and cross district routing and shared transportation locations.
The grant allows us to equip each bus with a commercially available GPS hardware to track routes driven, bus stop arrival times, vehicle speeds, and current location. An associated ground control software will provide continuous data aggregation and various analyses. In addition, a radio frequency ID (RFID) reader will be installed on each bus, and each student will be issued a passive swipe RFID card. No additional effort is required of the driver. The RFID system permits an accurate count of ridership and time and place students board and exit the bus. A text can then be sent to parents via a cell phone application to inform them when their children are getting on and off the bus.
Our GPS hardware and software will allow us to track established bus routes. We will use a separate commercially available software system to develop alternate routes to better accommodate routing efficiencies related to distance and bus stop groupings. All proposed route changes will be locally validated and approved prior to any route changes. In addition, we will create a consortium-wide, web-based bus scheduler to permit districts to transport students from multiple districts on the same bus. Lastly, our analyses will facilitate cross district discussion of optimizing bus garage settings and staffing levels.
Although costs will be minimized through changes in routes and transit time adjustments, the greatest reductions will be realized through normal attrition, as transportation personnel retire or quit. When these cases occur, districts can eliminate routes or significantly alter routes through and between districts. In addition, districts will be better positioned to reduce their carrier fleet as routes become more efficient and personnel needs are better aligned with the redrawn routes. Further, bus parking and garage locations can be optimized when multiple districts operate in a shared service model. When combined, the potential for significant cost reductions and savings are greater than what can be realized by a single district working on its own.
Critical Role of Partnerships
Most would agree that our shared services transportation concept makes sense and is timely; however, it is unlikely to have taken hold without the combined effort of ESCs and ITCs. Our emergent partnership over the past four years allowed us to reach out to our member districts in a trustworthy, credible, and convincing manner.
Our transportation concept is not without controversy or risk. Typically, districts do not work together in the manner envisioned in this grant. In our proposal, districts retain their local autonomy while considering meaningful and mutually beneficial opportunities to work across district lines.
Our ESC and ITC partnership is pivotal here. We have instituted a number of communication and support mechanisms to keep districts current with grant activities and to measure the pulse at the local level of possible unrest or implementation difficulties. Our partnership meets monthly. We hired a transportation facilitator to hold monthly meetings with the consortium’s transportation staff. We issue a monthly report to district superintendents, and we meet with senior district leadership at least quarterly. We also are available to meet individually with districts. We want our consortium members to be well informed, to be open with us with their local implementation efforts, and to work with their school district neighbors to reduce transportation costs while improving transportation service.
We are off to a good start. The GPS hardware and software will be operational as early as mid-December 2014. The RFID system will launch in January 2015. Alternative bus routes will be available for district consideration as early as spring 2015. The multi-district bus scheduler will be in place by January 2016.
Our data system will provide the information needed to make informed decisions. In large measure, however, it will be our willingness to work together that will determine our success.