Across northern Warren County, school administrators are wishing they could hit the brakes on the rising costs of student transportation.
Schools are now signing their transportation contracts with bussing companies for the 2023 to 2024 school year. In all three elementary schools covered by the Ridge View Echo, the cost of student bussing has increased. However, the proportion of that increase varies by district.
Knowlton Elementary saw the smallest proportionate increase in cost. According to the September 2022 board of education minutes, the board approved a transportation contract for the 2022 to 2023 school year with B&K Dalrymple, Inc. for $178,384. In June 2023, the board again contracted with B&K Dalrymple, Inc. for $188,837, an increase of $10,453, or 6%.
This increase is aligned with the rising cost of gasoline. The Consumer Price Index rose 0.6% in August 2023, driven mainly by an almost 11% increase in the gasoline index.
Blairstown Elementary saw a slightly larger increase in its transportation costs. For the 2022 to 2023 school year, Blairstown Elementary School contracted with Stocker Bus Company for $320,213.28. For the 2023 to 2024 school year, the school’s contract with Stocker went for $364,081, an increase of $43,867, or about 14%.
Interestingly, half of the increase in Blairstown’s transportation costs came down to two specific routes: route 5 (Tree) and route 8 (Bluebird). The cost to cover these routes rose by over $10,000 each, compared to an average increase of $3,589 for the other six bus routes.
Yet Frelinghuysen Elementary has seen the most extravagant increase by far. According to its board’s September 2022 minutes, Frelinghuysen contracted with a combination of the Allamuchy board of education and Krapf Bus Company for the 2022 to 2023 school year, paying an overall total of $182,205 for student transportation.
In anticipation of a similar cost, former School Business Administrator Molly Petty had budgeted $200,000 for bussing in the 2023 to 2024 school year. This would have allowed for a price increase of $17,795, or almost 10%.
Instead of contracting with both Allamuchy and Krapf, Frelinghuysen will rely solely on Krapf to supply its bussing next year. The cost of that contract: $267,500, an eye-watering increase of $85,295, or 47%.
School Business Administrator Greg Brennan explained that there was only one bid for next year’s bussing contract. Schools select their bussing companies every year through a bidding process.
Transportation companies submit sealed bids to school boards, with the contract awarded to the “lowest responsible bidder” — the company that offers to provide services at the lowest cost while still proving its ability to meet the school’s needs efficiently and safely. For Frelinghuysen’s 2023 to 2024 transportation contract, only Krapf had submitted a bid, leaving Frelinghuysen no choice but to accept it.
Denise Current is the owner of Stocker Bus Company, which covers Blairstown’s bussing. To explain the rising cost of student transportation, she points to fuel cost as well as a nationwide bus driver shortage.
In a September 2023 segment on “NJ Spotlight News,” transportation reporter Colleen Wilson had said that “competition for drivers is at an all-time high.” With full-time driving jobs available through FedEx, Amazon, UPS and other well-funded companies, there are fewer incentives to take a part-time job like bus driving.
Driving a school bus can also come with more stringent requirements, Current said. She points to a package of New Jersey laws passed in 2018 after a school bus crash on I-80 killed a teacher and child and left nearly all of the other passengers injured.
One of the laws requires bus drivers over the age of 70 to pass a physical fitness exam every year. Drivers over the age of 75 must pass it every six months.
This cuts into the main pool of potential bus drivers, Current said.
“Now that’s turning people away. It’s turning the senior population. More and more restrictions have made it difficult.”
She mentions other restrictions put in place by the Department of Education after the pandemic. Purchasing a permit or taking a written test could once be accomplished by walking into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Now, advance appointments are required.
“It turns people away,” Current said.
She sees lawmakers as the main actors responsible for doing something about school transportation costs.
“Lawmakers need to change the laws… and Motor Vehicles need to change their process and their availability to customers,” she said. “Covid is an excuse. Covid’s an excuse for everything. They need to get back to normalcy.”
In the meantime, every bus company in the area continues to advertise for bus drivers. An Indeed listing for a part-time driving position with Krapf advertises a $1,500 sign-on bonus for candidates holding a valid CDL with S and P endorsements.
Until something changes, schools are struggling to keep up with the costs. Blairstown paid for the cost increase through its supplemental stabilization aid. Frelinghuysen has tapped its emergency fund for an additional $67,500, leaving that much less for actual emergencies.
Board of education member David Hocking raised concerns about the impact of this budgeting hole on the 2024 to 2025 budget. Brennan agreed that the hole could be plugged with a budgeting adjustment from the county, but that measure can only go so far.
“Paying the bus company, to me, is not an emergency,” Hocking said, going on to list potential disasters like a broken boiler or a tree branch falling on the roof. “The state’s gotta do something for us. Granted, it’ll be a hit to the taxpayers, but it should be in the budget somehow.”
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.