With rising fuel costs and tight budgets, suburban school districts are looking beyond the yellow school bus for alternative ways to transport students, including the sometimes cheaper option of hailing a cab.
But the costs do add up.
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Forty-seven school districts in the state, mostly in northern Illinois, have spent nearly $50 million over the past six years on taxi services, according to contracts obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by watchdog group For the Good of Illinois.
For the Good of Illinois is a transparency group based in Elmhurst started by former Republican candidate for governor Adam Andrzejewski.
Northwest Suburban High School District 214 leads the list, spending $6.8 million over the past six years. Maine Township High School District 207 isn't far behind, spending $4.58 million in the same time period.
Other districts spending more than $1 million on taxi services in the past six years include: Hinsdale High School District 86, Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, Lake Park High School District 108, DuPage High School District 88 and Community Unit District 300, according to the documents.
Officials said taxis are most often used to transport special education students who may be unable to ride a regular bus because of medical or behavioral issues outlined in their individualized education plans. Taxis are also used to transport homeless students who wish to stay in the district but have been forced to move with family or into a shelter outside district boundaries. Some taxis are also used to transport vocational education students to work placement locations during the school day.
"Transportation is determined based on safety, distance, supervision and individual or medical needs of the student," said Jean Malek, spokeswoman for Lake Zurich Unit District 95, which spent a little more than $500,000 on taxis in the past six years.
Although districts are spending a lot to transport these students, they are getting reimbursed for some of the costs.
Under state law, school districts can submit claims and be reimbursed for up to 80 percent of the costs to transport special education students and up to 60 percent for vocational education, according to the State Board of Education.
Bruno Behrend, executive director of For the Good of Illinois, said even if the state is reimbursing the school districts, the money is still coming from somewhere for what he called an open-ended mandate.
"That's not a valid excuse," he said. "Whether it's the state or the local district, the spending is still taking place."
Although the costs are high, officials say they are mostly unavoidable. Under state law, they say, school districts are required to educate special education students up until age 22 and follow the transportation guidelines in students' individualized education plans.
"Transportation costs in general are huge for all school districts, but we are required by law. It's not an option to eliminate it, so we do it in the most cost-efficient way possible and are constantly looking for alternatives," said Deb Parenti, associate superintendent for finance and operations at District 214, which spent the most money statewide.
But Parenti said those numbers alone can be misleading.
"It isn't apples to apples to compare us to other districts. It has to do with the amount of special education students and where they are being transported to," Parenti said.
In District 214, that could include transporting a special education student from Buffalo Grove to a work site arrangement at IKEA in Schaumburg on a daily basis, she said.
District 214 is the second largest high school district in the state, and nearly 14 percent of the district's 12,000 students are classified as special education.
Parenti said the reason special education transportation costs District 214 so much more than other districts is that they have six high schools to transport students to, from and in between, more than other districts on the list who may have one or two locations.
Similarly sized, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 falls lower on the list because the district has its own transportation department with buses and staff, so they don't rely on taxis as much, District 211 spokesman Tom Petersen said.
He added that the relatively low $150,000 spent by the district on taxis over the past six years can be attributed to transporting homeless students or others outside the district boundaries.
Because of a rising number of homeless students, said Donna Bordsen, transportation director for Community Unit District 300, the district's taxi costs have been increasing slightly, although the district does own its own fleet of buses.
"The only time we use taxis is if it will be cheaper than a bus. If we can do it for less money, then we will," Bordsen said. "We really only use them if we have to. Sometimes there's no way around it."
Bordsen said the state only reimburses transportation for homeless students at around 40 percent, which she thinks should change.
"It adds up," she said.
Smaller districts in the more rural downstate areas of Illinois either own their own buses or have large enough district boundaries that transportation by taxi would not be more cost-effective, officials said.
However, Parenti said in some cases in the suburbs, a cab ride is clearly the cheaper option than the traditional school bus.
With about 1,600 special education students in the District 214, Parenti said about 250 of those students are transported daily with taxicabs. With 180 days in the school year, Parenti said that breaks down to about $26 per ride, while the average bus ride costs the district at least $215 round trip.
"Putting one student on a 70-student bus would be questioned also," she said.
Gail Kelly, director of special education at Lake Park High School District 108, agreed and said the task of transporting special education students is handled mainly on a case-by-case basis with some students transported by van, special bus or taxi.
"We use taxis for students who are privately placed when there is no bus available or only one student going to that location," Kelly said. "It can be a large cost to the district, but to send only one or two students on a bus is even more costly."
Officials said they are always looking for ways to save money.
Kelly said Lake Park actually switched cab companies in the past year, saving the district nearly $200,000.
Parenti said District 214 is working with area lawmakers on a bill that would allow school districts to use co-curricular buses used after school for sports and other activities during the day to transport students, which is currently not allowed. She said the change would save the district at least $500,000 since it already owns a few buses for such purposes.
The school districts get a discounted rate and are charged flat fares rather than having the meter running, said Joe Zayed, president of American Taxi Dispatch, which serves 40 districts in the suburbs.
American Taxi Dispatch and 303 Taxi, two of the major companies used by school districts in the suburbs, each have more than 100 drivers who have gone through the school bus driver certification and background checks to be allowed to transport students.
Tony Fuller, regional sales manager for 303 Taxi, said special-needs transportation accounts for about 8 percent of the company's overall trip volume.
"The nicest part of providing the special-needs transportation is working with all the good people that this kind of business attracts," Fuller said. "It takes a special kind of patient and caring person to work through the challenges associated with some of these very special children."
With 302,830 students classified as special ed during the 2010-2011 school year, rising fuel costs and squeezed school budgets, special education transportation is a high cost for district's across the area, but school officials said they are doing their best not to push the burden onto the taxpayers, and taxis are a part of that effort.
"We wouldn't be able to transport them in any other fashion at such a reasonable cost," Parenti said. "This is the most economic and efficient way possible."
Behrend said For the Good of Illinois is concerned about millions of dollars of spending, no matter what the money is used for, especially when some school districts did not go out for bid when choosing a taxi company.
"I find that suspicious at the least," Behrend said.
He said For the Good of Illinois is continuing to look this and other parts of the taxi costs issues and may put out another report in the future.