Buses line up at John Dibert Community School near City Park in September 2013. That year, the school spent about $913 per student on transportation.

At least seven New Orleans charter schools are teaming up in hopes of finding more affordable bus service next school year.

New Orleans College Prep, a two-school charter group, led the cooperative charge by requesting proposals from bus companies earlier this spring. Four companies responded, College Prep’s Director of Operations and Facilities Anthony Crim said. The winning bidder was Larose-based B & L Transportation.

“We were smaller charter management organizations and we were being ignored and priced out, and we weren’t getting the service we thought we deserve and thought the students deserved,” Crim said. “We still wanted to hold our autonomy but we knew there was an economy of scale where we were better if we were united.”

College Prep’s Director of Communications and Recruitment Troave’ Profice said the move came out of necessity.

“If you look at any board’s financials, transportation is one of the top three expenditures,” Profice said.

A 2017 study found that transportation costs for New Orleans schools have risen 33 percent more than they would have otherwise if the city’s schools hadn’t become predominantly charters. Researchers said they expected the increases, given new requirements for busing and a school choice model that did away with neighborhood-based schools, meaning many students are now being bused to schools far away from their homes.

During the 2004-05 school year, city schools spent $18 million busing students. In 2013-14, that number rose to $30 million. The average student’s commute also increased in that time frame.

The city schools’ decentralized bus system, mirroring that of the soon-to-be all-charter public system, have been the target of public attention lately. Earlier this year, the New Orleans City Council passed a new ordinance requiring school bus drivers, starting in the fall, to undergo the same background checks, drug tests and annual vehicle inspections that taxi drivers must complete. And one school bus company was recently accused of falsifying its insurance documents, based on reporting by WWL-TV.

But busing has long been a topic of discussion in the city.

The state-run Recovery School District introduced mandatory bus service while converting the city’s traditional schools to charters. Last year, the Orleans Parish School Board sued one of its charter groups that refused to provide bussing. The group argued the district’s policies weren’t clear enough but eventually hired a bus company after the district threatened to shut down its schools.

In the past, the district has promised to commission a study long bus rides and early pick-up times. But it only produced informal reports and polls.

Starting this fall, buses can’t pick up students prior to 6:05 a.m. That decision came after a report by the Education Research Alliance revealed that one in four students rode the bus for longer than 50 minutes and that buses often take circuitous routes.

A small partnership

Most of the groups participating in the new bus cooperative are single-site or smaller charter networks. Because they require only limited service, those schools, unlike large charter networks or parish-wide school districts, often pay a premium for student transportation.

The schools listed in the request are from across the city, from Uptown to eastern New Orleans. College Prep’s two schools, Crocker and Cohen are participating, as well as Homer A. Plessy Community School, Fannie C. Williams, Rooted School, Mary D. Coghill Elementary School and Living School.

“They’re able to negotiate better rates,” Profice said of traditional districts. “But they also get a better rate when it comes to insuring those buses.”

She estimated many schools are paying three times the rates that larger districts are paying and said the cooperative will help bring those prices down.

“This is essentially going to help put the money back into classrooms,” she said.

FirstLine Schools tried a similar cooperative arrangement in 2013 when it brought Apple Bus Company to town and also provided transportation to Encore Academy. Other charters own their own fleet and employ bus drivers.

Crim said each participating charter group will sign its own contract with the bus company, but they will share a group rate across schools.

“Shared services is a trend charters in Orleans parish should come together on because there’s a lot of strength in numbers,” Crim said. “We did this out of pure necessity because we were underserved.”

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.