This fall, students across Minnesota began another unusual school year. Teachers, staff, parents and students continue to face enormous challenges navigating the disruption and uncertainty that the pandemic has brought to our education system.
One of these challenges is a historic shortage of school bus drivers, which has led many school districts to take drastic measures — eliminating routes and reducing services. But school bus professionals in Minnesota have an unwavering, steadfast commitment to doing whatever it takes to get kids to and from school safely each day. Case in point: More school bus company leaders and school district employees are driving routes this year than ever before.
This driver shortage crisis is compounded by another challenge: school districts relying on outside consultants to manage student transportation. We have seen this issue bubble up recently in headlines about the Stillwater Area School District. The district's primary transportation provider, responsible for getting students to and from school safely each day, is not only navigating the driver shortage but also problems with the district's transportation consultant. The district's transportation provider is now in ongoing litigation with its transportation consultant, which it alleges recruited bus drivers away from the district to other bus companies.
The situation in Stillwater is a public example of what is happening behind the scenes with other school districts across the state.
Lately, school district leaders and school board members have been overworked, strained and facing great scrutiny over their decisionmaking. Many school districts are increasingly turning to consultants to handle certain work and decrease the burden on their internal resources. One common area to seek outside help is for transportation services.
On the surface, this makes sense: School district decisionmakers aren't expected to know everything, so they rely on an outside expert to handle contracts with school bus companies. Or maybe budgets are tight at a school district, so they lay off their transportation director and hire an outside consultant instead. This is cheaper on the front end, but usually ends up being more costly — both financially and reputationally.
People across Minnesota's school bus driving profession are concerned about the unethical conduct of certain transportation consultants when they provide services to school districts.
This conduct includes:
- Operating through multiple business entities, one of which manages transportation contracts for school districts while the other provides transportation services to the same districts by subcontracting with transportation providers.
- Requiring subcontractors to sign agreements stating that they won't compete with the consultant anywhere where the consultant provides services, even if the subcontractor previously provided services to the district. This unnecessarily drives up costs.
- Managing transportation contracts for school districts, which includes paying consultants who are in turn responsible for paying school bus companies for their services. For this reason, several school bus companies are not getting paid in a timely manner from the consultants.
- Providing inadequate route mapping services due to a lack of knowledge of the community — leaving school bus companies to reroute poorly planned routes right before the school year begins. Transportation consultants should work with school bus companies to provide the most efficient routing possible and prevent school districts from paying twice for that service.
- Prohibiting school bus companies from having direct discussions with school districts without their presence, which drives up inefficiencies, leads to lack of transparency and minimizes the partnership school bus companies have with school districts.
Those of us responsible for providing transportation services to school districts want to work with people who are highly ethical and responsible. We are using taxpayer money and we want to use it efficiently and in a way that directly benefits students. Our advice to school district decisionmakers handling public resources: Understand the risks in working with certain transportation consultants. Not all are bad actors, but some are. If you're going to hire one, decide exactly which services you want them to provide, check for conflicts of interest and ask for references.
We encourage Minnesotans to find out if their school district uses a transportation consultant. If they do, they should urge their school board members and administrators to thoroughly examine the partnership or terminate the relationship. A school district's use of certain transportation consultants unnecessarily drives up taxpayer costs and minimizes efficiency. At the end of the day, we are here to serve students. They deserve better.
Bill Regan is the owner of Owatonna Bus Company. Wayne Hoglund is the president of Vision Transportation in Elk River. Mike Severson is the owner of HALO Transportation in Andover.