Student transportation became a topic of discussion at Monday’s Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education meeting as school board members received a budget update.
The district has budgeted $2.12 million for the current school year, including nearly $1.85 million anticipated from the state of Alaska and $271,698 from the district’s transportation fund balance account.
The district contracts with First Student Inc. to provide bus service for students. In addition to delivering students to and from school, the buses also serve rural village students who visit Kodiak for school-related events.
Sandy Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, said the amount pulled from the fund balance was the most the district has ever had to pull out. The transportation fund balance currently sits at $1.33 million.
Board member Duncan Fields asked why the fund balance increase had gone up and whether it would be a trend.
Superintendent Larry LeDoux said to expect an increase in costs, which are in part related to the number of intensive needs students.
“When we have an intensive student we have an obligation to transport them, and there is a limitation on the number of students we can transport,” LeDoux said. “I think it’s going to go up because the number of intensive students is pretty high. This year, we are approaching just over a hundred students with intensive needs.”
He said that number has doubled in five years. He added that money from the state allocated for intensive needs students helps generate revenue to pay for increased costs.
“We are also meeting the needs of more kids than we ever have,” LeDoux said. “Plus, fuel costs are going up, but I think we will be OK because at some point in time the state is responsible for that transportation.”
He added it appears the state “is more prone to put money into transportation than basic student allocation.”
“I guess buses are pretty empirical in terms of if you need them, you pay for them,” LeDoux said.
Board member Katie Oliver asked if the budget will support adding routes to Main Elementary. Bus routes serve North Star, East and Peterson elementary schools, as well as Kodiak High School and Kodiak Middle School.
“When we talk about busing, I think we should be providing transportation to all our schools,” Oliver said.
LeDoux said funding isn’t the main factor that interrupts opportunities for Main Elementary service; rather it’s drivers.
“We don’t have enough bus drivers, and we’re barely holding on to the ones we have right now,” LeDoux said. He said the district thought it would have to cancel some of its regular routes because of a perceived driver shortage.
“First Student had to import drivers from Fairbanks and Juneau just to keep the buses we have operating,” LeDoux said. “If there’s a chance, we can add a route to Main if we have a bus and driver available.”
LeDoux added that it would be a route similar to one it has added to North Star in the past during winter months.
A regular route, he said, would likely cost an additional $100,000 a year.
LeDoux said the district has spoken with First Student about using buses serving North Star to drop off Main Elementary students.
“That would increase the routes, but the reason we haven’t done that so far is because of space and COVID concerns about packing too many students in one bus,” LeDoux said. “We are analyzing that option, however, and believe it’s very feasible because the North Star bus goes through the Main territory.”
LeDoux said another reason why Main Elementary lacks a dedicated bus service is due to state guidelines.
“The state guideline for busing is a mile and a half and everything Main Elementary’s service area is within a mile,” LeDoux said. He added he had no problem adding a route for Main, especially for those students living in the Aleutian Homes area.
But again it comes down to either adding it into the budget and or trying to adapt to the pandemic.
“COVID has made it difficult to add a route or a driver and it’s all made it difficult to use the other strategy of loading more kids on the North Star bus,” LeDoux said. “As soon as we can pack kids a little tighter or the bus company has enough drivers, we could add that route.”
Fields proposed a needs assessment study to determine how many students would be served by adding a Main Elementary route. LeDoux said the best approach would be to survey Main Elementary’s parents, contact First Student and bring the information back to the board.