Ridgefield's school bus rate to increase under new contract, but district looks to future savings

A school bus heads towards Ridgefield High School on Thursday afternoon at the end of the school day. January 21, 2016, in Ridgefield, Conn.

A school bus heads towards Ridgefield High School on Thursday afternoon at the end of the school day. January 21, 2016, in Ridgefield, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — The rate the school district pays for school buses will increase under a newly approved contract with its transportation company, but education officials are still looking for savings. 

Ridgefield schools have extended the contract with First Student for the next five years. Next year, the rate per bus per day will go up 4.5 percent and then each subsequent year, it will go up 4.25 percent. The bus contract expires at the end of the school year.

"The Board opted to negotiate a five-year renewal, signed in December rather than go out to bid as we have seen other districts in CT increase more than 20 percent during the bid process," said Jill M. Browne, Ridgefield Public Schools finance director, to Hearst Connecticut Media. "The large bid outcomes we have seen are likely due to the shortage of drivers and increased fuel costs in the current climate. Our five year renewal secures a 4.5 percent increase the first, followed by 4.25 percent in the remaining four years. These figures are significantly less than we have seen in other Connecticut communities who have gone out to bid this fall, and we are pleased to continue our partnership with First Student."

In a Jan. 9 presentation to the Board of Education, Christopher Wojciechowski, senior consultant for the firm Transportation Advisory Services, analyzed possible cost savings in transportation for the coming year. He spoke in depth about reducing the number of buses, condensing routes, and increasing ridership. 

Costs, buses

The proposed school transportation budget for 2023-24 has an increase of about 2 percent, or about $129,000 more than this year. The total cost for transportation is about $6.5 million. This makes up about 6 percent of the total budget.

Costs such as salaries for the director and van drivers are included in the proposed budget, as well as an estimate for fuel, Browne said.  

"The van driver wages are new to the budget and we have offset these salaries by decreasing the overall bus run amount by $200,000. Some route changes have already taken place with the two vans we currently are operating. We expect additional savings and route changes next year when we add two more vans to our internal fleet," Browne said.

Under the town's contract, Ridgefield has 31 large buses and 19 small buses. The district is paying for however long the bus operates each day. It's either four, five or six hours and based on a small bus and a large bus. 

"There is not much difference cost wise between those small buses and those large buses. It's my opinion that the number of small buses can be reduced," Wojciechowski said. He added, however, there are some challenges with Ridgefield and some of the roads where using the small buses may be necessary.

He said there's two main ways to achieve cost savings. Each bus is driving either to three or four schools. "To get savings, you would have to reduce one bus from each of the schools that it goes to," he said.

Ridership

The district recently performed an in-depth ridership audit, which is when bus drivers count which students are riding the bus in order to get an accurate look at who's riding the bus and who isn't on a fairly consistent basis. 

The audit showed usable capacity is 66 percent for middle- and high-schoolers. He said ridership compared to the "usable capacity" is lower than where the company would like Ridgefield to end up, Wojciechowski said.

"I like to use the word 'usable capacity' because you are not fitting 77 high schoolers on a large bus. In all reality, you're fitting 50 or 51 — and that's pushing it," he said. "We'd like to apply that rule to middle schoolers as well because you can have some very big middle schoolers as well."

He added the goal should be 85 percent ridership versus usable capacity as a target.

"It's not something that we think is probably even achievable, just with the size of the district and the way that the district's laid out," he said. "That  should be kind of the goal. Let's see how close to this we can get. We don't have to get our kids to school on 70 percent empty buses."