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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 22, 2002

Board of Education raises school bus fare

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

MILILANI — The state Board of Education last night voted to increase school bus fare from 50 cents to 70 cents per day.

But the increase will not take effect if the state attorney general rules that public hearings held on bus-fare increases were not valid, board members said.

The increase to 70 cents was a compromise after the original proposal — to double bus fare to $1 a day — was rejected in a 6-5 vote minutes earlier during last night's board meeting at Mililani High School.

The subject of the public hearings was on the original proposal to raise the bus fare to $1; an increase to 70 cents was not discussed. Thus, board members last night said they will seek an attorney general's opinion as to whether the public hearings gave the public an adequate opportunity to comment.

"Is it clear as mud?" board chairman Herbert Watanabe said before the second, and passing, vote.

The Department of Education had requested a fare increase to help make up part of a projected $4 million deficit in its transportation program, which will cost nearly $26 million this year.

The fare increase and other changes in bus service would affect up to 30,000 public school students who pay fares or ride for free.

An additional 3,300 special-education students also ride free but would not be affected by the plan.

A proposal to increase the distance requirements to ride the bus has been dropped.

The last school bus fare increase was in 1995, when the fare rose from 10 cents to 25 cents per ride.

Last night, the $1 fare increase was narrowly defeated after several board members said they were concerned about financial effects on families.

Board member Sherwood Hara said the $1-a-day fare would be a tremendous burden for families with three or four children. "I think we as a board need to consider the impact when we make these rule changes," Hara said.

The problem of how to deal with rising transportation costs has beset schools nationwide. Labor, gasoline and insurance costs were already driving costs higher — an average 3 percent to 4 percent annual increase nationwide for years — but the drop in tax collections that followed Sept. 11 proved to be a critical loss that sent many school districts scrambling to impose or raise fees to make up their shortfall.

Hawai'i's school transportation costs have been rising by about 2 percent annually for labor and 1 percent to 2 percent more for fuel, according to the DOE.

Today, the average cost of providing a one-way ride to school is $2.50, according to the DOE.

In public hearings held in May and June, only one person testified in favor of the increase; 53 people testified against the measure. Some opponents said higher fares will mean fewer students will ride school buses, which a recent national study showed is the safest way of transporting students.

Rising costs and a reduction in state money in Hawai'i have been aggravated by the soaring cost of transporting special-education students as well as free rides for 12,000 regular education students from low-income families, according to Cynthia Kawachi, acting DOE student transportation services manager.

It costs nearly as much to bus Hawai'i's 3,300 special-education students who require transportation as it does to bus the other 30,000 regular public school students — $11 million versus $13.7 million, respectively.

Hawai'i is required by state law to provide bus service to public school students.

If approved, the new transportation policy would also require students to carry some type of bus pass instead of paying in cash to go to and from school.

Also yesterday, the board heard a status report on the ongoing push to accelerate school repair and maintenance projects.

Gilbert Chun, operations and maintenance facilitator for the DOE, said the state in the past year chipped away $210 million of a decade-long $640 million repair backlog problem at the public schools.

Renovations of 40 public schools in the past year have taken the backlog down to $430 million. Some of the projects — from installing new flooring and lighting — have been on the state's to-do list for years.

The Department of Accounting and General Services has a six-year plan to reduce the repair and maintenance backlog. It would reach 228 of the state's 263 regular public schools, and more than 10,000 classrooms.