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Transportation costs mount for special needs schools

Mr. Daniel helps guide student onbus following day classes February 6 2013 Camelot Therapeutic Day School Hoffman Estates.

Mr. Daniel helps guide a student onto a bus following a day of classes February 6, 2013 at Camelot Therapeutic Day School in Hoffman Estates. February 6, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 15, 2013 11:47AM

This is the final part of a series looking at where students are placed when their home schools can’t meet their needs.

The line of buses heading to doors behind the building in the Prairie Stone Office Park in Hoffman Estates is a long one by 8:30 a.m. That’s when the check-in process begins at Camelot in Hoffman Estates, one of many off-site facilities where school districts such as U46 and 300 send students whose needs can’t be met at their schools.

It might be longer still, but some of the schools’ 100 students are dropped off by family members or taxicabs. Others come and go throughout the day, taking classes or participating in extracurricular activities at their home schools.

But Camelot has check-in down to a science, according to Principal Wendy Murphy Musielski. The process takes only about 15 minutes each morning, she said.

Trying to determine what local school districts spend transporting students to therapeutic day schools and other specialized facilities is a more complicated matter — and apparently a costly proposition.

Those students are transported by bus and even taxicab to 26 different facilities in Elgin School District U46 and to 24 — many the same ones — in Community Unit School District 300. Some are transported as far away as Northbrook.

And while the federal government says it reimburses school districts for 100 percent of the costs to transport students with special needs to and from these off-site facilities, that actually comes out to about 80 percent, according to District 300 Director of Transportation Donna Bordsen.

“It’s basically done by miles, attendance; and then what they do is you enter all your allowable expenses, and they have something running in the background that figures out that percentage,” Bordsen said.

“It’s a very complicated formula.”

Breaking down
the cost

Officials from both U46 and District 300 said it is difficult to provide a hard and fast breakdown of these transportation costs. That’s because, Bordsen said, “It depends on what day and what time of the day, because it is always changing.”

A cursory look at the numbers they could provide, though, shows these costs are not insubstantial.

Using Camelot as an example, Bordsen said, “Twenty-four students share three buses, and three students go via taxi. It costs approximately $50 per day per student in a taxi, and $29 per student per day in a bus.”

There also is a mileage expense for the buses that includes fuel and maintenance. Bordsen puts that at $180 per day, based on an estimate of 120 miles traveled at a rate of $1.50 per mile.

If the math were easy, with 176 days in the school year, that would mean District 300 — before any reimbursement — spends $122,496 transporting the 24 students who go to Camelot by bus each day, another $26,400 on cab fare for those three students, and $31,680 on mileage expenses. That’s an annual total of $180,576 on transportation costs for sending 27 students to Camelot alone.

But, Bordsen said, “It is not that simple.”

“We pay a route charge. A single-tier route during the school year costs us $77.16, plus maintenance and mileage at $1.50 per mile. A single-tier summer-school route is $66.15 plus mileage. These are billed differently because drivers are not guaranteed the same number of hours in the summer as they are during the school year. A route can have one student on it or it can have several students on it.

“Again, it depends on the student’s needs, the distance, and such.”

In U46, the cost to transport one student to and from an off-site facility was $6,364.38 for the 2011-12 year, according to information provided by U46 Staff Attorney Luis Rodriguez. The Elgin district placed 162 students at private facilities last year, adding up to just over $1 million, he said.

In the 2011-12 school year, U46 spent $13,568,866 on special education transportation costs. That includes driving 2,132 students a collective 2,427,205 miles at an average cost of $6,364.38 per student. That cost is up from $7,949,551 in 2007-08, when the district transported 2,414 students a total 1,912,868 miles at an average cost of $3,293.10 per pupil, according to U46 Freedom of Information Officer Anna Pasternak.

Taking taxis

With cabs, Bordsen said school districts are not charged for days a taxied student doesn’t go to school, but they can be charged a “no load” fee if they do not notify the taxi company the student will not attend school that day. And the $180 mileage expense remains constant “only if the circumstances of these routes never change,” she said.

Whether a student is transported by bus or taxi “depends on the needs of the student,” the District 300 transportation director said.

“It could be because of distance or time. Typically these are long bus rides because these kids live all over the district. They’re not in the same neighborhoods, and the district is 119 square miles. We first look at the needs of the student and then what would be most cost-effective,” she said.

Districts don’t just throw a kid in any taxi. The Carpentersville-based school district, for one, goes out to bid for taxi services, Bordsen said. And the taxi companies it uses have a special school fleet, she said.

“These drivers have to have special licensing to drive school children,” she said. “We meet with our taxi drivers before the school year begins to discuss district expectations, and we work very closely with taxi management and dispatch to monitor what is going on. We do have the option of telling them that we don’t want a particular driver.”

Buses and aides

Whether a student takes a taxi or a bus, and whether that student is accompanied by an aide, depends on his or her Individualized Education Program or Plan (IEP), according to Charlene Cross, an education services generalist in District 300. That plan, assessing a student’s needs and setting goals for him or her to meet, is put together through meetings between district officials and the student’s parents or guardians.

The number of students on this type of bus route is typically determined by the length of the route, Bordsen said. And that typically is determined by the distance between students’ homes, she said.

One bus can pick up and drop off 70 general-education students in about 10 minutes for a neighborhood school such as Perry Elementary School in Carpentersville, she said.

But, Bordsen said. “That never happens for these kids. They just all have such unique situations that all need to be handled separately.”

If she had to guess, Bordsen said, some buses now may transport as many as 20 students at once to off-site facilities. More students could fit on a bus, but that bus might have to pick up some from Algonquin and some from Carpentersville to go to Camelot, and that could take 2½ hours, she said.

“State guidelines tell us that bus routes should not be longer than 60 minutes. Best practices also tell us that a student should not be on a bus longer than 60 minutes. Sometimes this just isn’t possible, given the district is 119 square miles. That is a lot of territory to cover when you consider that the students that attend out-of-district programs don’t live in the same neighborhoods,” she said.

In U46, the district was paying $30.10 per hour and $1.80 per mile to send 25 students to Camelot as of December, according to information provided by Pasternak. Those costs have climbed steadily from $26.50 per hour and $1.50 per mile to send nine students to Camelot during the 2007-08 school year, she said.

Explaining the expense

What drives those costs so high, in addition to taxis and aides and distances, is that Camelot is just one of the dozens of therapeutic day schools and other off-site facilities used by local school districts.

Those districts may send students to different facilities in different school years, Cross said. District 300 also partners with other school districts to send students to a handful of programs for hearing-impaired students in their districts, she said.

“Not all districts can run a hearing program because there are too few students that need this. So we get together on a program,” Cross said.

Bordsen said District 300 really doesn’t keep data by school for those transportation costs.

For example’s sake, though, she did determine the current transportation cost per day per student for several programs. That’s $138 for one student going to the Larkin Center in Elgin; and $151 for students going to Alexander Leigh Center for Autism in Crystal Lake.

For some students who are accompanied by an aide, that cost is $280 for those attending South Campus Day School and New Connections Academy, both in Palatine; $272 for those attending Classroom Connections in Bannockburn, plus $151 mileage; and $119 to a program for hearing-impaired students at Howard B. Thomas Grade School near Burlington.

Mileage expenses can add $123 to the $154 cost of transporting a student to Child’s Voice in Wood Dale.

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