Politics & Government

Wake schools: We need $5 million to cover ‘unanticipated transportation expenses.’

Mechanic Randy Jones replaces a turbo atop the engine of a Wake County school bus at the Wake County Public School System transportation garage in southeast Raleigh Thursday, August 25, 2016.
Mechanic Randy Jones replaces a turbo atop the engine of a Wake County school bus at the Wake County Public School System transportation garage in southeast Raleigh Thursday, August 25, 2016. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The Wake County school system wants help covering $5 million in what it calls “unanticipated” extra costs from transporting special-needs students and from excessive school bus repairs.

Wake school administrators said Tuesday that more vehicles were needed than expected to transport special-needs students, costing $3.6 million more than budgeted this year. Administrators also said that school bus repair costs are projected to cost $1.4 million more than expected due to failures with diesel engines.

The school board voted Tuesday to request the $5 million, which school leaders said the county has in reserve to cover the costs. School board chairman Jim Martin said that he’s been in touch with the leadership of the Wake County Board of Commissioners on the issue.

“We are working hard to make sure that we have as good a communications as we can with the commissioners,” Martin said. “The whole idea of surprise we are really trying to take out of the picture.”

Both boards are holding a joint meeting Wednesday.

Wake contracts with different companies to provide transportation daily to 4,200 “exceptional children,” which includes special-needs, homeless and Pre-K students who can’t ride regular yellow school buses.

David Neter, Wake’s chief operating officer, said it costs significantly more to transport these children, around $20 million a year, due to how individual vehicles are transporting a small number of students. He also said Wake is paying to have a safety monitor in each vehicle.

Wake made changes to the contracts this school year, including altering the way it pays the companies and taking over responsibility for drawing up their routes. Wake has to pay a premium rate to the companies to provide more vehicles than contracted.

Neter said some of the companies hired this school year likely won’t be asked back for the 2019-20 school year. The school board will vote on the new contracts at an upcoming meeting.

In terms of the bus repairs, school officials said they didn’t anticipate having engine issues with three model years of regular yellow school buses. Neter said they anticipate replacing diesel engines on 50 buses this school year and another 200 buses in the next few years.

Neter said the state doesn’t budget money to replace the bus engines.

School board member Bill Fletcher said that they’re asking commissioners for the money because the district no longer has a large enough fund balance to cover the $5 million.

“That’s not a healthy place for us to be ultimately,” he said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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