The fact that there are more than 500 school districts in New Jersey is not news. This disaggregated and locally managed structure is the way things are, and the way we’ve always done them.
What is news, however, is that now we know the consequence of having more than 500 decision-makers spending $1.2 billion transporting the more than 700,000 students in New Jersey and, more importantly, how we can improve it.
The fact that student transportation represents one of the largest outside-the-classroom costs for hundreds of school districts is what initially drew our attention; but it is the considerable variation among school districts that provides the opportunity to drive $200 million of savings across the state without sacrificing the safety of our children.
FACT: While students are transported at an average cost of $1,508 per pupil, the middle 50 percent of districts spend between $1,160 and $3,361 per student.
FACT: More than 37 districts spend more than $10,000 per student transported.
FACT: Districts are very different but all those differences do not account for this cost variation
As part of Garden State Initiative’s “Adding It All Up” series of reports on NJ’s $117 billion government, we’ve set out to identify opportunities where services can be made more efficient and benefit taxpayers. We took a deep-dive on these district discrepancies asking the question — what accounts for all this variation? Is it policy and operational decisions or variables outside of a district’s control — or all of the above?
Utilizing publicly available data from each district, this data-driven model shows that districts with otherwise similar fundamental characteristics spend vastly different amounts on school transportation. Most importantly, correcting these cost variations are essentially within the state and district’s management control to improve. That means we have a clear path to reducing spending by reconsidering district transportation policies and improving operational efficiency.
This is not a call for consolidation; rather that guidelines, based on financial performance, need to be provided so that taxpayers have much greater transparency as to what is truly driving costs and ultimately taxes.
Our report, based on a model that enables smaller and larger school districts to be compared on a more level playing field and measuring actual spending to what the model predicts based on district characteristics, reveals that in transportation cost management:
• 61 districts scored as Excels, spending significantly less than the model predicted.
• 213 districts scored as Satisfactory, spending less than the model predicted.
• 199 districts scored as Needs Improvement, spending more the model predicted.
• 64 districts scored as Unsatisfactory, spending significantly more than the model predicted.
This isn’t an urban versus suburban or rural issue. Among the best performers are Newark (urban) and Farmingdale (suburban), while Leonia (urban) and Lakewood (suburban) are on the other end of the spectrum. We also found that districts statewide provide nearly a third of all students transported with “courtesy” busing, highlighting the role that a district’s individual policy decisions play in driving transportation operations—and costs.
So, what do we do? First, let’s look at what other states are doing to perform better than New Jersey. Maryland, which handles school administration at the county level, achieves 30 percent lower transportation cost per pupil than New Jersey.
North Carolina leverages data collection and routing software to provide service at a 46 percent lower per pupil transportation cost than in New Jersey. Washington State similarly uses advanced data to find efficiencies each year. New Jersey can adopt best practices from these and other states to enhance our ability to gather, analyze and act on data.
This study derives the basic conclusion that fixed environmental factors are not entirely determinative of transportation spending. This leaves room for policy and technical efficiency to improve service and efficiency. While every district is different, there is no question that most districts can operate more efficiently and hew closer to the median spend of districts among their peers.
Operational and policy changes will be where the “rubber meets the road.” Savings can be achieved in student transportation. But it will require collaboration and coordination on both the state and school district levels and perhaps most importantly a change of attitude to get beyond “how we’ve always done things.”
Regina M. Egea is president of Garden State Initiative.