A review of Kenyon-Wanamingo Schools’ transportation provider, Held Bus Service, is recommending a reduction in the number of school bus routes.

But while K-W’s interim superintendent says the cuts would not only reflect a drop in enrollment and ensure the district can limit reductions in staff, Held owner John Held is pushing back, saying the plan will do little to adjust his costs and lengthen already long bus rides.

During the K-W School Board’s June 22 meeting, Interim Superintendent David Thompson said the district’s former superintendent had some concerns with Held Bus Service last fall and hired an educational transportation consultant to audit cost factors and bus routes. Of the recommendations, a reduction in the number of bus routes to match the decrease in student enrollment over the years was the most significant.

The last major revamp of bus routes by Held Bus was at least 14 years ago, according to Thompson. During that time student enrollment decreased by about 200, though the number of bus routes has remained the same.

Thompson says the district has tried negotiating, but in the last several meetings between K-W Administrative Cabinet and Held representatives, Thompson said the district has been mostly met with,”We can’t do this,” after suggesting several ideas to improve the provider’s efficiency.

Held said although the number of students has decreased, the district’s area hasn’t. Twice a day, regular bus routes cover approximately 215 square miles, which includes portions of Rice, Dodge, Steele, Goodhue counties. Although the routes can be eliminated on paper, once the rubber hits the road, the reality is the students still need to be picked up and dropped off near their homes.

Reducing routes would have little effect on the company’s costs, other than drivers’ salaries, Held said, adding that costs for fuel and wear and tear on buses wouldn’t change with fewer bus routes.

The transportation consultant advised reducing the current 12 bus routes to 10. Thompson said for every route not reduced, the district would have to cut two staff members. The recommendations, Thompson said, are an investment in the future of K-W and educational opportunities, and that programs “cannot” be compromised.

With the 2020-21 fiscal year budget needing to be approved by June 30, the district is in cost-cutting mode. The district needs to slice $443,000 from the budget, mostly due to the dropping student enrollment numbers and state aid that hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Another part of the equation for budget reductions comes from the board’s decision to increase the fund balance — the balance left in a school district’s maintenance account, or checking account, less any accounts payable, at the end of the fiscal year — from 2% to 4%, meaning they need to spend less to be able to increase the fund balance percentage.

Held says he’s determined that next year the company could operate with 11 routes, however if a further reduction was made, the outcome would be “very” destructive to families in the district, as children would have to wake up even earlier to get on the bus. The average pickup time in the morning is close to 6:30 a.m., with afternoon drop offs between 4:10 to 4:30 p.m.

Held also expressed concerns over operating with the reduced route schedule under Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education guidelines as there’s already been discussion about reducing bus capacity due to COVID-19.

If Held Bus decides it can’t accommodate the two route reduction, Thompson said the cabinet recommended seeking bids for a new transportation provider. The district has given Held Bus until the end of the month to agree to its directive. A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 30 to continue discussing route configurations and efficiencies.

“We’d like to stay local, but we need to look at this for efficiency and cost measures for us,” Thompson said. “The school district has right-sized for the last several years with student enrollment and things, it’s time to right-size with bus routes as well.”

Held Bus Service has contracted with the Kenyon and Kenyon-Wanamingo school districts for over 50 years, dating back to the late ‘60s when John Held’s father started the company. Held says the contract is a “two plus two,” meaning every two years the contract can be renegotiated, otherwise the district is locked in for the next two years.

Last year’s contract was over $1.1 million, which Thompson indicates is 13% of the district’s budget. Of that $1.1 million, the district wants to cut $90,000 with the suggested route reductions, with an overall budgetary reduction amount of $163,000 for transportation. Thompson says that reduction amount is the minimum the district is looking for.

Held said he has “shaved” off $172,000 from last year’s expenditures through special education transportation reductions and switching two van routes to regular bus routes, a change the district’s former superintendent setup, prior to the installation of an overpass over Hwy. 52.

Held said he’s made a standing offer to district leaders to ride the bus to get a feel for why the routes are set up as they are.

“People think it’s so simple, but it’s very, very complicated,” said Held.

Reach reporter Michelle Vlasak at 507-333-3128 or follow her on Twitter @apgmichelle. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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