Study: Belmont County School Districts Could Benefit From Shared Services

The Ohio Auditor’s Office has determined some Belmont County school districts could benefit if they would partner and outsource their bus maintenance to Bellaire Local Schools.

A feasibility study pertaining to saving money on transportation services was requested last year by Bellaire Local Schools in conjunction with Bridgeport Exempted Village School District, Shadyside Local School District and the St. Clairsville-Richland City School District. The Muskingum Valley Educational Service Center and the East Central Ohio Educational Service Center were supporting partners.

Results of the study were presented Tuesday in the Bellaire Local Schools central office. Bellaire Superintendent Darren Jenkins and Shadyside Superintendent John Haswell were present, while Bridgeport’s Zac Shutler and St. Clairsville’s Walt Skaggs were not.

Scott Anderson and Scott Smith of the Ohio Auditor’s Office told the superintendents cost savings could be realized through their cooperation. However, neither Anderson nor Smith was able to say just how much each district might save — or how much the districts would save collectively — if they collaborate transportation efforts.

They suggested Bellaire is well-situated to be the hub for bus services because of its central location and its maintenance garage — the only one that employs a full-time mechanic and has two bays suitable for maintaining a collective fleet of 60 or more buses.

The four school districts collectively operate 47 school buses.

Bridgeport Local Schools does not have a mechanic or a maintenance garage, and the district outsources all its service needs, said Smith. By outsourcing to Bellaire, Bridgeport could reduce costs, diversify its maintenance options and avoid the capital investment in a maintenance garage.

Shadyside Local School’s bus maintenance workload does not support the expense of maintaining or fully staffing a vehicle maintenance garage, he said. Outsourcing to Bellaire could save money by avoiding mechanic overtime, and the district would not have to replace its maintenance garage when it becomes obsolete.

The bus garage used by St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools is nearing the end of its life, Smith said. However, based on the district’s current labor cost structure, the district would not benefit from outsourcing to Bellaire at this time.

The report suggests St. Clairsville might instead seek to partner with other neighboring school districts and become a maintenance hub itself.

Anderson and Smith also said the school districts maintain fleets with extra buses for use when needed. The study proposes school districts work together to reduce their collective spare bus fleet, resulting in insurance savings and one-time revenue from the sale of extra buses.

Anderson and Smith could not provide exact figures as to how much each school district might save through consolidation of bus services. This would depend on the scope of the consolidation, and deals that were negotiated between the districts, they said.

The Ohio Auditor’s Office sets the collective budgets of the four school districts at $68,880,175, and that $1,916,221 of this figure is directed toward transportation costs.

While the districts have actively sought to individually reduce expenses, the overall number of riders on each bus has decreased 38 percent since the 2013-2014 school year. This has resulted in a greater cost per pupil in the transportation budget, Smith explained.

Jenkins said Bellaire is seeing increased busing costs, while state funding for transportation has dwindled. But the public has questioned the school district about any attempts toward consolidation of services.

“It was never a situation where we were looking to totally consolidate transportation departments,” he said. “What we were looking to do was to find areas where we could work collaboratively as partners and neighbors and take advantages of economies of scale and drive the cost of transporting people down.”

Haswell said Shadyside Local Schools has had an aging bus fleet in past years, and Bellaire Local Schools has helped them out on more than one occasion.

“We’re 3 miles apart, but sometimes it seems we’re worlds apart,” he said. “They have 14 bus routes — we have five.

“If there is an opportunity for us to get into a win-win situation where we can share services — and it works for both districts — it makes sense to take a look at it.”