Solanco Public Schools—short for “Southern Lancaster County”—is the fifth largest district in Pennsylvania, spanning 181 square miles. And it means long bus rides for students: 50 minutes for elementary students and an hour or more for middle and high school.
And in Pennsylvania, public districts are required to provide transportation to non-public students—students who live up to 10 miles outside a district’s borders but who choose to attend a non-public school—as long as the school is accredited.
For Solanco Public Schools, that required busing and paying for 154 school children to attend 15 non-public schools, with a ride time of an hour and a half or more.
When it cost Solanco $306,000 above regular transportation costs to transport its non-public students in 2011, administrators literally had to find a less expensive route. “The question was, how can we eliminate as many bus stops on the route as possible?” says Jason McClune, Solanco’s transportation director for 13 years. “The thought process became ‘the more stops that are eliminated, the shorter the bus run; the shorter the bus run, the fewer buses it would take to pick up students … the less time children would be on the bus.’”
A Rural Space Problem
McClune says this is a common problem in Pennsylvania. With so much rural space, some districts have only two students on a bus route that is 9.5 miles outside a district’s limits, forcing a district to either hire a personal bus driver and a vehicle, or ask a parent if they’re willing to drive.
When Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in his 2012-2013 budget to eliminate the state’s “pupil transportation reimbursement formula” that helps fund a yearly percentage of districts’ transportation costs (55 percent in Solanco), the threat was enough to solidify Solanco’s need to find new options for busing non-public students. (In the end, that portion of the budget wasn’t passed.)
McClune says Pennsylvania districts have long contracted with parents to drive their kids to school. “This could be for a special needs student or in some cases a non-public student, but it usually happens because the school district is unable to feasibly transport the child to its school,” he says.
In late 2011, McClune took the concept of parents simply driving their kids to school to the next level by creating a “shared savings transportation plan“ that would ask families to drive their children to a centrally located bus stop, or what is called a “hub “in Solanco. At the hubs, a bus could pick up 15 or more students at a time—eliminating buses from making individual stops at students’ homes across the expansive district—and drive them the rest of the way to their school.
At each of the district’s five hubs, parents would be responsible for their children until the bus arrived to take them to school. In the afternoon, the district would staff the hub with someone to stay with students until the last student was picked up by a parent (allowing buses to continue their route without waiting for a parent to arrive). Each hub would have a handicap-accessible shed to protect students during inclement weather. And parents who opted out of public busing by driving students to a hub, or all the way to school, would receive a stipend for their participation in helping the district to reduce its buses, routes, drivers, and costs.
Selling the Plan
McClune took the idea to Solanco Superintendent Martin Hudacs, who readily agreed with the plan. With Hudacs’ approval, McClune next presented the plan to Solanco’s school board. After its quick approval, McClune went to the principals of every non-public school in the region to discuss the details, who were also on board.
The district sent letters to all the Solanco families, explaining the shared savings plan and that details would be presented at four town hall meetings. “The individualization with which we reached out to the parents is important,” says Hudacs. “The fact that the meetings were both presentations and fact-gathering occasions is important: Parents felt that they could ask questions and could provide input as the plan was being developed. [They] knew that the green light or red light for this idea was entirely in their hands.”
Susan Broomell, a parent of a ninth grader who attends private school, drives her kids to school. Though she doesn’t take advantage of the hubs (her family lives close enough to school where using a hub is unnecessary), she says she appreciates the stipend her family receives for opting out of busing and praises Solanco’s leaders for thinking outside the fiscal box. “We were very much in favor of the school district looking for where it could cut spending in high-cost areas,” says Broomell. “As a taxpayer in the district, if this can save the district money, we’re all for it.”
Since the program launched in September 2012, Solanco’s shared savings transportation plan for its non-public students reimburses 51 participating families out of a possible 102 up to $700 each year for driving their children part way to school, for a total of $35,700. To date, it has saved the district $118,176 in gas costs, time, bus driver salaries, and wear-and-tear on buses. The number of non-public students’ bus routes and drivers needed to cover them dropped from nine to six. With more parents driving their children, bus drivers’ drive time across those routes dropped from 32 hours to 27.5 hours. And the drivers’ total daily mileage, per bus, went from 1,340 to 382 miles.
The transportation program is garnering much attention. Out of countless praise McClune hears from families about it, “Now our children don’t have to ride the bus for so long” tops the list, and a dozen school districts have called or emailed him about setting up a similar cost-saving program in their district.
Solanco (Pa.) Public Schools
- Schools: 7
- Students: 3,683
- Staff and faculty: 471
- Per child expenditure: $11,942
- Dropout rate: 38%
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 38%
- Website: www.solanco.k12.pa.us
Jen Chase is a freelance writer.