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Cost of busing students in New Orleans rises as parents exercise school choice

The proliferation of open-enrollment schools in New Orleans means parents can choose where their children are educated, no matter where they live. But when it comes to getting those kids to and from school, that freedom of choice comes with a price for schools.

The cost of busing students to New Orleans’ public schools has risen by about 67 percent since the school year before Hurricane Katrina, when it cost $18 million. This year, it’s $30 million, although there are fewer students and schools now.

That increase appears to be driven largely by the transition from neighborhood to open-enrollment schools and from a unified system to a network of independent charter organizations.

Before Katrina, most New Orleans students went to school in their neighborhoods. In 2004-05, they traveled an average of 1.9 miles to school, according to the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.

In 2011-12, that was up to 3.4 miles. And most students — 86 percent — didn’t attend the school closest to home.

So while many students could walk to school before the storm, now buses shuttle them across the city. Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences, located near Algiers Point, picks up students in eastern New Orleans. Meanwhile, Sarah T. Reed High School, a traditional public school located in eastern New Orleans, carries students from the West Bank.

Most of the 87 public schools in New Orleans — charter schools and those run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District — provide transportation to their students. They do that by contracting with bus companies, providing passes for public transportation or even buying their own fleets and hiring drivers.

These costs aren’t spread evenly among the city’s public schools; some budget nothing for transportation and several plan to spend more than $1,000 per student enrolled. At a few schools, transportation accounts for more than 15 percent of this year’s budget.

One reason for the range: Depending on their charter agreement or district rules, some schools may not have to provide transportation. Even if they do, at some schools more parents may drive their kids back and forth. And some schools have more special education students, who cost more to bus because they require assistants and have to be transported in smaller groups.

“We are almost a district now of districts,” said Debra Vaughan, an economist and researcher for the Cowen Institute. At a recent roundtable discussion on student transportation, she noted the impact of school choice and a decentralized school system on student busing — not just the cost, but travel times and the effect of transportation on truancy.

Kindergartner Am'marie Watkins walks off the bus at John Dibert Community School, one of the charter schools that takes kids from around the city. FirstLine Schools, Dibert’s operator, also handles busing for the Recovery School District’s direct-run schools.

Marta Jewson / The Lens

Kindergartner Am'marie Watkins walks off the bus at John Dibert Community School, one of the charter schools that takes kids from around the city. FirstLine Schools, Dibert’s operator, also handles busing for the Recovery School District’s direct-run schools.

About a dozen transportation companies bus students in New Orleans. Each charter organization arranges its own transportation, perhaps working with more than one company if it has several schools. And the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board arrange transportation for their direct-run schools.

Even charter schools that share buildings arrange transportation independently. ENCORE Academy and Crocker College Prep share the same Uptown building, but not busing services. Crocker pays $1,050 per student using Hammond’s Transportation; Encore uses Apple Bus Company and pays $785 per student.

“Better coordination between schools and more competition amongst transportation vendors could help achieve some savings,” the Cowen Institute said in a 2010 report.

Ben Kleban, founder and CEO of New Orleans College Prep, the charter organization that runs Crocker, said the two schools haven’t tried to coordinate busing.

“Even if we did share busing, there are still different cost drivers at each school,” he said. For instance, more kids at Crocker take the bus, and the school provides a second round of busing every afternoon once after-school programs are finished.

“Crocker would still cost more per pupil,” he said, “and we’d have to allocate those costs.”

The Cowen Institute has found that transportation plays a big role in some parents’ decisions about where to send their kids: “Low-income parents placed relatively more importance on the school’s proximity to home, the availability of transportation and after-school care or extended day programs.”

In order to keep costs down, some charter networks use the same bus for two routes. A bus picks up kids for one school, delivers them and goes back out for another school. The downside, however, is that some children have to be at their bus stop as early as 5:40 a.m. if they live far away.

Citywide busing a logistical, financial challenge

At some schools, bus service represents their second highest expense after personnel costs.

Schools overseen directly by OPSB and the RSD tend to spend more per student on busing than those run by individual charter organizations. The four schools that spend the highest percentage of their budgets on transportation are OPSB direct-run schools, all of which use Durham School Services.

Highest transportation cost per student
Mahalia Jackson Elementary School $1,603.77
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology $1,301.87
Crescent Leadership Academy $1,272.01
Fannie C. Williams Charter School $1,196.26
Sarah T. Reed High School $1,195.27

The Lens obtained this year’s projected enrollment figures and the transportation budgets for every school, some preliminary and some approved by the board. For the 11 schools directly run by the RSD and OPSB, The Lens used spring 2013 enrollment. Those figures were used to calculate transportation cost per enrolled student, which is the same method used by the state.

Costs have risen for some schools in recent years.

In the 2008-09 school year, the Orleans Parish School Board paid $947 per student to transport students to and from its five direct-run schools. That jumped to $1,061 in 2010-11, also for five schools.

Today, transportation averages $1,106 per student for OPSB’s six direct-run schools.

Based on preliminary enrollment figures, the Recovery School District plans to spend about $1,290 a student on transportation for five direct-run schools.

That’s lower than for the 2010-11 school year, when the RSD paid an average of about $1,563 per student at its 24 Orleans Parish schools. But in the 2008-09 school year, the RSD paid $331 a student at its 33 Orleans Parish schools. (Since Katrina, the RSD has been turning over more and more schools to independent charter operators.)

RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed pointed out that RSD has a large number of special-education students. About $613,000 of RSD’s $1.5 million in transportation costs is for them.

It’s hard to compare state and local transportation data because of the lag in statewide figures. But one piece of comparable figures shows what’s happening: Per-pupil busing costs rose 10 percent for OPSB’s handful of direct-run schools from the 2010-11 school year to the next. Statewide, it rose 3 percent.

Adrian Morgan, CEO of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, said the high costs of transportation and early bus stop times across the city are simply a result of logistics: the river, traffic, where students live and citywide school choice.

He said the network works closely with its bus company, First Student Inc., to work out the routes and adjust them if students move during the school year.

“It is a little bit of a chess game and very complicated in terms of trying to get it right,” he said.

Fannie C. Williams Charter School expects to pay nearly $1,200 per student this year.

“Since it’s citywide, we’re not in control of enrollment,” said Brenda Watson, the school’s business manager. “We welcome it, but then we have to incur the cost.”

Watson told The Lens that the school, with a projected enrollment of 535, uses two or three buses for special-education students and more than 10 buses for the rest.

Many parents can’t take students to school themselves, Watson said. “If those buses don’t pick kids up, they don’t get to school.”

About a fifth of the city’s households don’t have a car, according to 2011 Census data.

Costs vary widely

Though most schools spend between $500 and $1,000 per student, some schools spend far more — or practically nothing.

Edward Hynes Charter School has budgeted just $79 per student on busing, less than 1 percent of its budget.

Principal Michelle Douglas said that’s largely because many students live nearby in Lakeview and walk or ride bikes to school. Many also participate in after-school activities, so their parents pick them up.

Two schools have budgeted about 2 percent of their expenses for transportation.

Sophie B. Wright Charter School will spend about $204 per student; the school owns its fleet of buses and employs the drivers. Dr. King Charter School, which contracts with First Student Inc., will spend just $229 per student.

Meanwhile, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, one of OPSB’s direct-run schools, is projected to spend $1,604 per student on bus services this year.

When asked what could be responsible, a school employee referred The Lens to OPSB; no one responded before publication.

Some schools decide not to bus students

Benjamin Franklin High School and Warren Easton Charter High School, both OPSB charters, took different tacks on transportation after Hurricane Katrina.

“We have a long tradition of not supplying busing,” said Timothy Rusnak, Ben Franklin’s CEO. The school prefers to put that money into teaching, he said.

Ben Franklin provides Regional Transit Authority tokens and transfer tickets to any student who requests them. The school budgeted $25,000 this year for transportation, a small fraction of its budget.

Rusnak said the school is open at 6:30 each morning and stays open for 12 hours —  sometimes longer — in part to accommodate parents who take their kids to and from school.

Across town at Warren Easton, the school will spend $675,795 on transportation, 8.1 percent of its budget. That works out to $735 per student compared to Franklin’s $29.

Warren Easton Principal Alexina Medley said the RTA’s routes don’t reach all of her students.

“Initially I was for the RTA,” said Medley, “but the school bus does provide a little bit more safety for the children and probably parents feel a little more secure.”

Lake Forest Elementary Charter School also has decided not to bus students. The school provides RTA passes to students who qualify. As a result, the school has budgeted just $6 per student for transportation.

Negotiating, collaborating to save money

Some schools, such as Warren Easton and Bricolage Academy of New Orleans, have aggressively negotiated with the bus companies in town.

There are signs of collaboration, too. The Algiers Charter School Association, which runs six schools, still handles busing for two schools that are now operated by a new charter operator, InspireNOLA.

And for its five direct-run schools, RSD has contracted busing through FirstLine Schools, which also operates five schools.

This year, FirstLine Schools signed a contract with Apple Bus Company, which brought the Kansas-based transportation business to town. Apple Vice President Reid Oyster said he is looking forward to the challenge of routing buses through a new city with ever-changing enrollment and population.

“The changing environment of education in Louisiana,” he said, “and especially in New Orleans, is going to be a challenge.”

This story was changed after publication to add Ben Kleban’s comments about transportation costs at Crocker College Prep.

Correction: The original version of the map published with the story included incorrect locations for several schools. (Sept. 13, 2013)

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  • Lee Barrios

    It’s a little misleading to say that parental choice has resulted in high transportation costs. It would be more accurate to say that a system of faux school choice that prevents most children from attending a neighborhood school has resulted in high transportation costs. If the district had at least designed their “transformational” new charter school system to accommodate children with schools in their neighborhoods this issue would not exist and the safety and well being of our children would be paramount. Of course we know that issues of selectivity, control, and the underlying desire to eliminate the ability of parents to meaningfully participate in the child’s school required the chaotic situation that resulted.

  • James Finney

    This is part of the reason I’m opposed to an uncontrolled proliferation of charter schools all over Baton Rouge. Kids spend waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay to much time riding around on uncomfortable buses and not enough time, playing, reading, sleeping, or any of the other things that would be better use of kids’ time than bouncing around in a yellow chunk o’ steel. Neighborhood schools are good for communities, too. Imagine if most of the kids in a neighborhood actually went to the same school. First step: Abolish the RSD.

  • ToryII

    Is school busing paid for by the property tax ?

  • RampartStreet

    Lee Barrios has it right. If neighborhood children were at least guaranteed a seat in their nearest neighborhood school, then this would be a much smaller problem.

    Remember–the initiating complaint in Brown VS: Board of Education was that Oliver Brown was required to bypass his nearest neighborhood school in favor of one at a more distant location because his daughter was denied admission to that neighborhood school.

    Now, in the guise of “reform,” Oliver Brown’s dilemma has been recreated in 21st century New Orleans.

  • RampartStreet

    Unless the school charges parents a separate transportation fee (as private schools sometimes do) then yes, it is paid for out of taxpayer dollars.

  • RampartStreet

    Elementary school kids have to have school buses for safety’s sake, but Tim Rusnak at Franklin is correct; issue high school kids monthly passes for the RTA if they live more than 1 mile from the school, and this will save money for the school as well as boosting RTA ridership. Why have a separate bus system for high school kids when there’s already a perfectly good transit system in place?

  • ToryII


  • ToryII

    If not for school buses and busing, the roads would clog every morning and afternoon.

    It’s inherently expensive. Best solution is for small local accessible schools.

  • nickelndime

    School-aged children (primarily pre-K thru 8th grade) wake up in the dark and wait for school buses that take them past schools that should be accessible to them. They arrive back home about 11 hours later. Hello, you $6.00 and no-bus charter schools (!), and thanks so much, OPSB, for ensuring that the cycle of abuse continues and “your” charters continue to discriminate. And yet “you – OPSB,” have the nerve to open even more charter schools in a saturated district when you have a 6-figure-salaried Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools who cannot do any more than “talk” to principals to see if she can get any of these eligible schools to return to local control! For one thing, Padian is talking to the wrong people. And for the record, I am all in favor of getting rid of the RSD, including John White, Patrick Dobard, et al. Then, we have the OPSB (wringing my hands – what to do with them?) Then there is the City of New Orleans (what to do with it?)Thanks for all the comments. Yo! Lee and Alan, how u do in’?

  • peterccook

    I asked this question of Marta, but never got a response, so I’ll try again here…Did you all include the costs for RTA bus tokens/bus passes in your pre-Katrina cost estimate? (I still have nightmares of dealing with the distribution of tokens and passes to students, as I’m sure many former NOPS teachers do.) I have no doubt transportation expenses have increased with city-wide open enrollment (and I’m not sure why folks are surprised at this fact), but unless the costs for RTA transportation were included in 2004-05 total, it’s not really an accurate comparison of then/now.

  • nickelndime

    Are any public school students riding the RTA (“a perfectly good transit system”) and seeking recompense? I love the fact that someone would actually reference this system and another one would question its usage statistics. Just when I am about ready to give it up, human novelty shows up unexpectedly.

  • nickelndime

    How does one qualify for RTA passes at Lake Forest Montessori ($6.00/student for transportation)?! LOL. Go ahead wit yo’ bad selective-admission self.

  • Marta Jewson

    Hi Peter,
    My mistake, I didn’t see that tweet until now.
    Yes, the $18 million is ‘purchased student transportation’ which includes busing service provided by companies and RTA tokens/passes. The only thing not included in the $18 million, which is also not included in our $30 million figure, are costs of say, hired security guards at bus stops, because they would fall under personnel. Though my impression is that is less common now that fewer students use RTA.
    (Guess I needed more than 140 characters anyway)
    Thanks for the question!

  • will_k2

    Please cite evidence of the following claims:
    – Children being denied access to a school in reasonable proximity to their neighborhood
    – Desire to eliminate ability of parents to meaningfully participate in the child’s school.

    Your conspiracy theories get wilder with each passing month.

  • will_k2

    No, Lee Barrios does not have it right. The cause of increased transportation cost and time is parents taking advantage of the opportunity to send their kids to a quality school across town instead of being trapped in their terrible neighborhood school because they can’t afford to live in a high-rent district where the “neighborhood” schools are better. Locking kids into “neighborhood” schools = perpetuating economic injustice.

    Barrios doesn’t care about leaving disadvantaged kids in a cycle of hopelessness, she only cares about her never-ending quixotic quest to tear down the charter system and return to a single monolithic school board that would increase the power of the teachers’ union by enabling citywide collective bargaining.

  • will_k2

    Evidence of children who have to be bussed past multiple schools that would take them?

    Just because it fits nicely into your theory doesn’t make it true.

  • Lee Barrios

    You should be able to get that information from the RSD and NOPSB – how many students enrolled in each school who are outside certain distance and need to be bussed etc. I attended the RSD parent forum last night at Walter a Cohen a High. You could have collected all the proof you need then as the major point of discussion was the inability of students to attend a school close to home. I don’t make this stuff up. What conspiracy theory? I suppose there will be a story on the parent forum either in or the Lens.

  • Lee Barrios

    Charters are public schools and funded by tax dollars and grants. Of course they can accept donations.

  • Lee Barrios

    I suggest you hold a parent forum and find out for yourself then. Where do you get your information from anyway?

  • Lee Barrios

    Do you ride public transportation at 5:30 am or after dark? Would you let your kid? Have you used the public bus system from New Orleans East to Ben Franklin area? I haven’t.

  • Lee Barrios

    And just because you say it isn’t true doesn’t make it not true. Do you attend RSD or charter board meetings or read the minutes in the Lens? Of course not.

  • Lee Barrios

    You got it Nickelndime.

  • nickelndime

    Posted 10 days ago: “How does one qualify for RTA passes at Lake Forest Montessori ($6.00/student for transportation)?! LOL. Go ahead wit yo’ bad selective-admission self.”
    I would now like to add the following: Go ahead wit yo’ bad selective admission and USDOE Blue Ribbon School self. OUT DA CHAIR AND ROLLING ON DA FLOOR. Whar dat damn RTA bus? Is it day or nite? Hard to tell – it’s dark both ways – coming and going! Whar ma baby? Ma baby Ma baby

  • RampartStreet

    Upon doing a little research I discovered that Franklin did in fact provide bus service from the more distant parts of the city, at least last year. Their website doesn’t say if they still do (c’mon, Franklin, let’s have an update!)

    The bus from New Orleans East, for example, had four pick-up and dropoff points, and It left N.O. East at 7:00 a.m.

    Even assuming RTA transportation with a 7:30 start to the school day, it shouldn’t be necessary for any student to be on the bus at 5:30 to make it to Franklin. 6;30, maybe so.

    And yes, if my child were a high school student I would expect him/her to be able to ride the RTA at 6:30 in the morning. City kids do that sort of thing all over the world by the time they’re 14 or 15.

  • will_k2

    “how many students enrolled in each school who are outside certain distance and need to be bussed” provides zero evidence that children are being denied access to a school in reasonable proximity to their neighborhood. I am sure there are plenty of kids at Franklin coming from all over town – that doesn’t mean they have been denied access at all neighborhood schools, it means they’re choosing to go to Franklin. I would think that would be obvious to anyone, but apparently not.

  • will_k2

    I guess next you’ll be telling us that you went to a forum where the parents were complaining about the schools’ “desire to eliminate the ability of parents to meaningfully participate in the child’s school,” right? THAT conspiracy theory.

  • will_k2

    Wrong again.

  • will_k2

    In other words: you can’t cite any evidence

  • Della Hasselle

    Hi RampartStreet,

    Just to be clear, parents pay for and organize those bus services to more distant parts of the city. Benjamin Franklin High School doesn’t provide any kind of yellow bus service.