Benchmark study explores cost cutting possibilities

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

William Ford Elementary School students are seen boarding buses after classes Thursday. A recent benchmarking study on Dearborn Public Schools suggests the district should consolidate bus routes to save money for the cash-strapped district.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Dearborn Public Schools administrators are considering a number of measures to cut costs following a recent study that found the district pays more than comparable districts for transportation, custodial services and nonclassroom staff.

The findings serve as a follow-up to a comprehensive district benchmarking study released in January. The more recent study was commissioned to help identify cost-saving measures in areas that appeared out-of-skew in the January report.

Accounting firm Plante & Moran, in collaboration with human resources consultants from Rahmberg Stover and Associates, used the Livonia, Plymouth-Canton, Wayne-Westland and Taylor school districts to compare with DPS transportation costs.

The study found Dearborn exceeded the other districts in several key metrics for transportation costs. At about 71 regular education students per bus, Dearborn averages significantly fewer riders per vehicle than the other four districts, which have a combined ridership of nearly 115 students per bus.

DPS also was found to spend more annually than the other four districts in transportation costs per student. At $927 per rider, Dearborn’s costs were nearly $100 more than the next closest district and $255 dollars more than the four comparable districts’ average of $672 per rider.

The study cited the low bus utilization as the prime reason for the disparate numbers and suggested reworking routes to get more usage out of the district’s fleet.

DPS spokesman David Mustonen said the district is receptive to altering bus routes, but that no changes would happen until at least the 2010-11 school year.

“We’re talking about a substantial change that we just couldn’t implement tomorrow,” he said. “There needs to be careful thought put into this, because it could cause disruptions for many of our students.”

In addition to the altered bus routes, the study recommended reducing overtime hours for drivers, seeking a less-expensive fleet insurance policy, cutting maintenance workers and creating a rider registration system to help improve efficiencies.

The cost-cutting measures were also accompanied by some cash-raising ideas, which include selling underutilized buses and selling advertising space inside of busses. Districts in Ypsilanti and Goodrich have successfully implemented the latter proposal.

And while Supt. Brian Whiston is against privatizing district services, the study noted that districts that have contracted their transportation have realized an average cost savings of 20 percent to 25 percent.

The study found DPS custodial and maintenance workers are responsible for maintaining about a third less square footage when compared with the median of Michigan school districts that have 10,000 or more students and similar southeast Michigan districts.

Dearborn’s aging buildings were cited as one of the reasons for the discrepancy, but the large number of pools and before- and after-school activities also contribute, the study concluded.

To help rein in maintenance costs, the study recommends closing two elementary school pools, all middle school pools and consolidating middle and elementary extracurricular activities at the high schools.

The study also recommended cutting maintenance staff and employing a two-tier pay system that would bring new hires in at a lower pay scale than current employees. Mustonen said the district already has begun undertaking some of the attrition measures.

Privatization was again mentioned as a possible way to cut costs. The study said districts that privatize their custodial services generally realize about a 40 percent to 50 percent cost savings; in Dearborn’s case that would equate to roughly $4 million.

Nonclassroom and secondary education teachers also could face cutbacks. The study recommended the district eliminate the positions of five social workers, three psychologists and six librarians or media staff. The changes were recommended based on national averages of student-per-school-employee ratios.

With all of the recommended changes, there was a recurring theme: Service levels will decline, and the district must begin reassessing what it considers to be acceptable services.

“Whatever we do, people need to realize that it is going to change the services we deliver,” Mustonen said. “In a lot of cases that means it won’t be the same, or as much as it was in the past.”