Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Cost of Transporting Minneapolis Public Schools Students

We learned this semester that Minnesota state government plays a large role in funding local public school districts. Part of the state funding is expected to cover transportation, as state law requires school districts to provide it. The total number of adjusted students in each district is multiplied by 4.85 (the percentage of general fund dollars that are supposed to go to transportation) to determine how much each district gets for transportation. There are several criticisms leveled against this funding formula. First, because transportation funding is rolled into the general fund, school districts may be motivated to spend less than they should on transportation in order to use that money elsewhere. Second, the funding formula has nothing to do with how far away students live from their schools, nor does it increase with inflation.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is a large, urban district that serves about 35,000 students. In 2013-2014, MPS spent about 5.8% of its total expenditures on student transportation - which was about $800 per student. Historic consolidated financial reports can be found on the Minnesota Department of Education website, and they show that MPS has reduced its spending on transportation from a high 2007-2008. That year, the district spent about $1,000 (in 2014 dollars) per pupil on transportation, which was around 7% of its total expenditures at the time.

I chose to compare MPS to nearby Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) and Anoka-Hennepin public schools. Both SPPS and Anoka-Hennepin, despite serving about the same number of students (between 30,000 and 40,000), spend less per pupil, and as a proportion of total expenditures, than MPS on transportation. In 2013-2014, SPPS spent just under 5% and Anoka-Hennepin spent just over 5% of total expenditures on transportation, about $600 per student for both districts.

I found it very difficult to figure out why MPS is spending so much more than nearby districts on transportation costs. Since MPS decided in 2012-2013 to partner with Metro Transit and provide bus passes for public transit to high school students - and not use the traditional yellow school buses - I expected to see a drop in their spending the follow years, however that wasn't the case. MPS (as well as SPPS and Anoka-Hennepin) contracts out their yellow school bus service to private providers.

There are many costs associated with school transportation beyond just getting “regular” students to-and-from school during normal hours. There are also the costs of transporting special education students, homeless students, students that participate in afterschool programs, classes attending field trips, sports teams, etc. Just having the limited information that is available publically on MPS’s transportation expenditures, it is difficult to understand which of these areas is driving the high cost of transporting MPS students. As MPS is working in concert with both Metro Transit and an outside contractor to provide transportation for students, it will only be in working together with these partners that MPS can determine what may be driving higher spending on transportation and how to potentially reduce those expenditures. 

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