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updated: 5/11/2012 5:11 PM

District 15 exploring privatizing transportation to cut costs

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Palatine Township Elementary District 15 officials are in the early stages of exploring how to cut transportation costs, possibly through privatizing the district's bus service or expanding to a three-tier system.

Superintendent Scott Thompson this week presented to the school board a preliminary report drafted by school bus industry consultant Mike Medin, hired last year by the district in the wake of slashed transportation reimbursements from the state.

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"Transportation costs have increased and outpaced our funding," Thompson said.

According to the report, outsourcing bus service to a for-profit firm can result in cost savings because the company can offer its employees reduced wages and fewer, if any, benefits. In District 15, those account for 70 percent of transportation costs compared to 30 percent to 40 percent for a private firm.

The district also has to contribute 11 percent of employees' salaries to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. A private firm wouldn't.

Other savings result from leverage in large purchases, industry expertise and a focus on the bottom line, the report stated.

"As the consultant said, we're in the education business, not the transportation business," Thompson said.

Board members aren't weighing in just yet as to whether they think privatization is a good idea, but they're open to looking into it. Should District 15 proceed, Thompson said it could keep its own buses and maintenance staff or sell its transportation assets and hire a company to take over everything.

Whatever the board decides, Thompson said he'd recommend the district keep its own transportation director to be in charge of routes, quality, safety and complaints.

"I'd like to keep that component closer to our control," he said.

The consultant recommended adopting a wait-and-see approach for now. He suggested that District 15 pay attention to school districts in Winnetka, Bloomington and Prairie View, each of which is bidding to privatize its bus service.

As for the bus routes themselves, the consultant said the district would see savings if it switched from a two-tier to a three-tier system. Now, buses transport students who attend schools with an early start and then repeat the service for students at schools with a later start.

By adding a third tier and school start time, fewer buses and drivers would be needed. In 2007, the district reduced bus service from four tiers to two.

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