No matter the results of the District 112 referendum on Nov. 5, one thing is certain. In fall 2021, District 112 students will ride to school in brand-new district-owned buses, driven by district-employed drivers, dispatched and routed by the district’s own busing staff.
After reviewing the study and cost results presented by DeeDee Kahring, District 112 director of finance and operations, and John Thomas, District 112 transportation manager, on July 19 the Eastern Carver County school board voted unanimously to bring its student transportation services in-house.
Doing so will save District 112, $4,596,310, or 5% in costs over 10 years, according to numbers presented to the school board by Kahring and Thomas. That number is based on the district employing all staff, owning and operating all bus vehicles, and paying drivers $21.11 an hour.
But it’s up to voters to decide if the new school bus fleet will be housed at its current location at 460 Hickory St., Chaska, where limited garage capacity means half the current bus fleet of 121 is stored outside year round; or if the new fleet will have a home at 4201 Norex Dr., Chaska, stored inside year round.
The Norex Drive property is a 90,000-square-foot warehouse building that can be retrofitted to store buses and sits on 12 acres, compared with the current 6-acre site. In addition to storing buses, there would be five to six service bays and an indoor washing bay at the Norex Drive site.
The bus garage is included in Question 2 of the referendum. It reads: “Bond request for $111.7 million to build a new elementary school, repair buildings and build a larger bus garage.” Both Question 1 and Question 2 must pass in order in order to relocate the bus garage to the Norex site.
The school board began discussing the district’s transportation services nearly a year and a half ago, when it asked Kahring and Thomas to look at the costs of outsourcing the district’s transportation, versus bringing bus transportation in-house, similar to how the district brought the food service program in-house.
The request was made to not only contain costs, but to provide better customer service to parents and students, according to the district. By hiring and training its own bus drivers, the district feels it can provide a higher level of service, be more immediately responsive to parent and students concerns, and operate and communicate more efficiently.
“Bringing it in-house lets us react and respond faster,” Thomas said.
Another factor is that in recent years, District 112 has had fewer and fewer bus company vendors bidding on the district’s transportation services, resulting in less competitive bids. In the past few years, the majority of bidding comes primarily from Positive Connections and Koch Bus Company, according to Kahring.
Kahring and Thomas worked with a school transportation consulting firm to help identify and analyze all the costs and liabilities associated with bringing the transportation service and employees under the ownership and management of District 112. Their research showed the district could save $204,737 the first year; saving $440,444 the second year with additional savings each subsequent year, amounting to the overall cost savings of $4,596,310 over 10 years.
The first year savings are less, Kahring said, reflecting the costs of onboarding and training bus drivers, benefits, insurance, and additional transportation management staff.
The school district has owned the current bus garage facility on Hickory Street in Chaska since June 2001, when it purchased it from the former Salden Bus Company. At that time, the current garages were able to accommodate the size of the bus fleet. But as the district has grown in enrollment and increased its bus fleet, more and more buses are stored outdoors, to the point that nearly half of the buses are outdoors year round. Currently, there are 121 buses of which only half are able to be stored inside.
According to Kahring, the district had contracted for bus services with Salden until 2001. Then, the district contracted with First Student from 2001 to 2005. In 2005, the district contracted with Student Transportation of American (Positive Connections) which is the district’s current contractor, along with Koch Bus Company for some district routes.
“They (Positive Connections and Koch Bus Company) provide all the transportation service with their own staff, they manage the bus drivers, mechanics, and own the buses,” Kahring said. “District 112 pays them a fee for service.”
As part of its work in evaluating the current bus garage site and searching for a potential new location, District 112 has been in talks with the city of Chaska and Carver County.
If the district is able to relocate its bus headquarters to 4201 Norex Dr., Chaska, it could mean some other changes. Carver County is interested in purchasing the Hickory Street property as it wants to build a new facility to house its Health and Human Services department, and relocate the Chaska License Center there. With the license center moving out, the city of Chaska could use the site to relocate the Chaska Library.
Carver County Administrator David Hemze said the arrangement would be “a great partnership if it works out. There are three jurisdictions involved and everyone would come out a winner,” Hemze said. “There could be a new library on the DMV site, and the county would solve our space crunch problem by moving to the existing bus garage site where we could build a 68,000-square-foot building.
According to Matt Podhradsky, Chaska city administrator, the city did an analysis and organized a task force as it began planning downtown redevelopment of City Square West, and the outcome included a need for a larger library.
“The current one is undersized and the site that was identified (for relocating the library) is where DMV is. The county is running out of space, needing to expand their footprint for Health and Social Services,” Podhradsky said. “If they did move forward with an office building (on the bus garage site) a good co-use would be adding the license center.
“It’s an option, not the only one,” Podhradsky said, “but does make sense.”