Where is the money going? Howard County Schools spends more on transportation, cuts bus service to thousands of students

This article first appeared here on FoxBaltimore.com

HOWARD COUNTY, Md. (WBFF) — Thousands of Howard County Public School students are losing their school buses, yet the district is spending millions of dollars more on transportation.

So, where is the money going? Project Baltimore found what could be the driving factor.

Last week, Mark Sam Chee’s six-year-old daughter, and all the other elementary students in their Elkridge neighborhood, rode the school bus for the last time. The students and about 3,500 others in Howard County are now considered walkers. The district says it’s working to make transportation more “efficient.” But Sam Chee isn’t convinced.

“The neighborhood directly across the street from the school has a bus serving them next year,” Sam Chee explained. “Literally, across the street.”

Strange but true, according to the district’s bus coverage map. The neighborhood located feet from the school has bus service. Sam Chee’s neighborhood, parts of which are more than a mile from the school, lost its bus. Howard County Schools told Fox45 News the closer neighborhood has a bus because there’s no crossing guard at the intersection.

“But these kids right here, who are literally 100 yards from the school, you know, from their neighborhood, they don’t walk because they don’t have a crossing guard,” a parent told Project Baltimore.

Over the last few years, Howard County has significantly increased its transportation budget. It’s up $13 million, or about 30%, over the last two years. But if 3,500 fewer students now have a bus and intersections like this one don’t have crossing guards, where is the extra money going?

Howard County Public Schools will not agree to an interview with Project Baltimore to answer that question, but in a statement, the school system cited critical driver shortages and a change in school start times which decreases the window of time to transport students. The statement said, “This reduction of 45 minutes requires a significant amount of additional drivers and buses.”

But Project Baltimore also looked through recently approved busing contracts and found, next school year, Howard County Schools will pay out $45.3 million in transportation contracts. More than half of that amount, $27 million, will go to a new bus company out of California called Zum.

Zum is an electric bus company that markets itself as the “first and only 100 percent carbon neutral” bus company in America – that finds “cleaner, safer and more equitable solutions” to student transportation.

Zum will take over 230 bus routes in Howard County. At $27 million, that comes out to $117,000 per route. Viennas Transportation, which had the contract for Sam Chee’s neighborhood, charges around $75,000 per route using diesel school buses, that’s $42,000 less than Zum.

In its statement, Howard County Schools told us it “implemented a new service model that has a fixed price amount as opposed to the existing contracts, which have variable costs for fuel and mileage.”

In other words, Howard County Public Schools decided to spend nearly $30 million a year on a carbon-neutral bus company and then cut bus service for 3,500 students. If the intention is to go green, parents say this is not the way to do it.

“That’s nice that they want to do electric buses, but if we’re all driving our elementary school kids, you know that’s just more cars, more impact on the environment than the electric bus can negate,” one parent explained. “It seems like a big waste of money.”

“I think our parents and our families have a right to be concerned and even frustrated,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball told Project Baltimore.

Ball says he gave schools record funding this year. Despite that funding, the district cut bus service for thousands of students.

“I’m hopeful that our school system, our Board of Education, is going to look and work with our parents, work with our communities to ensure that our kids can get to school safely and create that best teaching and learning environment,” Ball told Project Baltimore.

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