Superintendents from O’Fallon to Red Bud have been paying attention to Belleville schools’ method to overhaul a costly service.
By cutting ties with a bus company and driving students to and from school themselves, Belleville District 118 cut over $500,000 from its budget. And Belleville District 201 saved more than $450,000.
They made the switch from a contract to a transportation service run by District 201 last school year.
Red Bud District 132 was next; it started driving its own buses in August to lower costs.
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Over the summer, O’Fallon and Shiloh superintendents reached out to District 201 for advice as they considered ways to save money on transportation, too. The administrators say they’re still exploring their options.
Why Belleville bought its own school buses
In early 2017, the high school district in Belleville was looking at two possibilities.
Its contract for busing was going to get more expensive — at a time when the state was giving districts less money to pay for it — or it was going to make a “substantial” change, according to Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier.
He and other district leaders decided that running the buses for Belleville East and West high schools and area elementary schools would both cut costs and increase funding.
It involved hiring nearly 300 employees and buying more than 200 buses with four months until the school year began.
In Red Bud, District 132 Superintendent Jonathan Tallman said funding from property taxes and the state wasn’t covering the cost of transportation there before it transitioned to an in-house service.
District 132 would use money it had in reserves to make up the difference, but Tallman said that was taking away from what it could spend in classrooms.
The savings of in-house transportation
Belleville District 201 officials recently reflected on the decision, calling it a success because it saved a total of $471,024 and brought in $1.14 million more in state revenue, according to the 2018 audit.
“We haven’t done that in at least 30 years, probably more; we had contracted with a transportation provider, and we just thought that it was time that we try and do it on our own, and it’s worked out really well,” Dosier said.
Belleville District 118, whose 11 elementary schools comprise about one-fourth of the bus routes, also saved money. Assistant Superintendent Ryan Boike said the change cut a total of $504,442 from District 118’s costs.
“It was a huge savings,” Boike said. “We would do it all over again.”
Six other elementary districts — which were facing the same financial problems as Belleville District 201 last year — now pay for busing on a per-route basis with the new Belleville Schools Transportation Services: Belle Valley 119 and Whiteside 115 in Belleville; High Mount 116 and Wolf Branch 113 in Swansea; Pontiac 105 and Grant 110 in Fairview Heights.
Officials in Red Bud District 132 estimate the savings could be between $105,000 and $115,000 for them, with an increase in state funding, too.
District 132 had a little more than 1,000 students last year, compared to 4,700 in District 201 and 8,600 in the elementary schools it serves around Belleville.
And the costs
The move required significant costs at the start for Belleville District 201, including liability insurance, 297 new employees’ salaries and 216 school buses that need maintenance, fuel and a facility to house the vehicles.
It cost $2.1 million to purchase the property at 2012 Mascoutah Ave. in Belleville, which used to be a First Student, Inc. transportation facility.
Because of its size, Belleville District 118 purchased its own buses, which was about $2.5 million of the $10.8 million total fleet cost.
“There are a lot of facets of a move like this that you have to consider,” said Brian Mentzer, assistant superintendent in Belleville District 201. “It may not be right for everybody. You have to have the infrastructure in place to be able to handle things like new forms of insurance, things like increasing your payroll.
“I think my advice would be look to those around you who are making it work.”