The Castaic Union School District is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to its transportation department.
Currently, the district has three qualified school bus drivers and one driver trainer, with one more driver who was recently hired but is on probation as the person goes through the training process.
That is not enough to fill every need of the district, according to Irene Boden, assistant superintendent of business and administrative services for the district. At a study session last week with the district’s governing board, she presented the different options that the district can use and why the district cannot continue with its current contract as it’s currently constructed.
The district has contracted with Student Transportation of America since November 2022, but Boden said the contract is set to receive a pay hike of 5% after it was increased by 10% last year.
Boden presented three scenarios for the governing board to consider:
- Keep the contract with STA and use district bus drivers for special education students, at a cost of approximately $1.25 million per year.
- Remove the STA contract and only transport special education students, as required by law, at a cost of approximately $800,000 per year.
- Contract with Storer Transportation for all services, at a cost of approximately $680,000 per year.
The yearly totals include both district expenditures as well as state and local funding.
Boden said the district would almost have to go with the second scenario for the 2024-25 school year because the district is not legally allowed to eliminate the transportation department until March 2025. The issue with that, she said, is that many students who rely on district buses to get to and from school would no longer have that option — unless the district is able to hire three more qualified bus drivers.
“That is a big deal in our district,” district Superintendent Bob Brauneisen said. “We need to consider that aspect of it.”
The two areas that would be believed to be most affected by a loss of transportation would be Val Verde and Templin. Boden said the average daily attendance loss factor is unknown until the potential change is made.
“Templin cannot walk to their elementary school and Val Verde cannot walk to their elementary school or middle school,” Boden said. “And we don’t have public transportation able to facilitate this. So, that’s the scenario and the world that we’re living in here in Castaic, and we do have pockets of need in both of those communities where the students need to be transported.”
Should the district go with that scenario, or the third one, it would also have to increase student fees for transportation, Boden said. Those fees, when unsubsidized, are currently at $400 per student and $600 per family, regardless of how many students in a family ride the bus.
“If they’re going to pay for the experience, well they should pay for the experience,” Boden said. “We need to offset our costs a little bit better, and we haven’t addressed the route fees in years.”
According to Arlene Alcaraz, the district currently has 74 students being bused to and from Val Verde and another 35 to 40 being bused to and from Templin. She added that there are 25-30 students on each waiting list.
Keeping the transportation department and attempting to beef it up would be somewhat risky, Boden said, as the state is attempting to move toward electric vehicles. The district currently does not have ownership of the yard that houses the district’s buses, meaning repairs and upgrades cannot be done, and finding a new bus yard would also be difficult, according to Boden.
That, plus a lack of drivers, makes it hard for Boden to see the second scenario working out for every student.
“If we’re able to get enough (drivers), that’s great, but we do have two bus drivers that may retire,” Boden said. “If we’re getting people and we can sustain it, I would actually suggest to sustain. But we do need to keep it on the horizon that as soon as the state tells us to go electric, we’re gonna be back here having another transportation meeting.”
Boden said the first scenario would be the least desirable due to its high cost leading to almost $800,000 in expected expenditures to the district. Based on Boden’s multi-year fiscal projection, doing this would see the district fall under its district-mandated 5% available reserve balance, though it would be above the 3% that the state mandates.
The third option is also risky, according to Boden, as it is possible that no company bids to take the contract, leaving the district without any option to transport students. Boden used Storer as an example of what it would cost based on what the Newhall School District pays the company.
The Newhall district uses Storer for both regular and special education transportation, while the William S. Hart Union High School District and the Saugus Union School District use it only for special education transportation, Boden said. The Sulphur Springs Union School District has its own transportation department for all students.
Brauneisen said having a districtwide transportation department would be ideal, but that finding enough drivers to fulfill every need is difficult.
“Everybody nationwide, and especially in California, we’re experiencing a shortage of drivers,” Brauneisen said. “At one point, we had a complete transportation department, and we were able to transport so many of our students. Our issue now is that we just can’t find the drivers, and the companies that provide transportation are prohibitively expensive to provide transportation to everyone.
“We’re hopeful, but we’re gonna have to be realistic and look at so many different options to try to make it happen,” Brauneisen added. “So, it’s taking a creative solution.”