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Letter: What Long Island Can Learn From The School Bus Strike

Just across Nassau’s Western border, a crisis is brewing in New York City over a school bus strike. The city is trying to cut costs by contracting out school busing to private companies.  Bus drivers, members of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, are fighting in this tough economy to keep the job protections they currently have. Even though our busing here in Nassau is far more decentralized, our local school districts are facing the same fiscal pressures, and our bus drivers depend just as much on their jobs as their counterparts in New York City. So how do we make sure we don’t end up in the same situation?

In my experience, the typical governmental approach to balancing budgets when faced with a shortfall is firing staff or raising taxes.  But that’s a losing game on both sides of the equation.  Instead, we need to look forward, plan smartly and find efficiencies in the system to save jobs, preserve services and avoid raising taxes.

People may view this as a simplistic, pie-in-the sky approach to a very complex problem, but I know we can do it.  That’s because we’ve already done it in Roslyn.

By law, school districts must provide students with bus service, even to a private school, if that school is within 15 miles of the school district.  With 127 public schools on Long Island and nearly twice as many private schools, the cost of administering this district-by-district adds up quickly.

In Roslyn, we decided to try a different approach.  I conducted a study of all the public school districts that border Roslyn to find the cost each district paid for out of district busing of private school students. We found a huge disparity in what neighboring districts paid to private vendors to send students to private schools, with differences in cost among neighboring districts as high as $20,000 per student.  Seeing an opportunity for savings, Roslyn now has a successful pilot program in which we partner with two neighboring districts. It’s a win-win and the money stays in the school system, as opposed to paying a private vendor. Replicated Island wide, this busing initiative could save well over $10,000,000 annually.

Frankly, there’s no reason not to do this.  The 2011 Property Tax Cap Legislation authorizes New York State school districts to enter into inter-municipal partnerships like this. BOCES is required to provide regional transportation services, which means they can step in on routes that may not make sense to other districts. Reducing the amount of time spent on the bus is good for students, and there will be no loss of funding from NYS if schools work together.

Beyond busing, all services should be examined for efficiencies before governments even consider outsourcing. But for school transportation, bus drivers just want to do their jobs.  School districts just want to save money.  If we’re willing to think differently and act accordingly, we can achieve both. 

Adam Haber

(Ed. Note: The author is a Democratic Party candidate for Nassau County Executive.)