Is the Wake County school system's decision to play "Big Brother" a wise investment or money that could have been better spent elsewhere?
The school board's vote Tuesday to enter in a contract with Everyday Solutions to install GPS monitoring devices on all the district's school buses was hailed by supporters as an initiative that would save money and improve safety.
But opponents on the board called it a "toy," saying the $1.3 million expenditure in the first year could have been used for other areas such as more money for teacher assistants and assistant principals whose pay was cut last year.
The discussion opened during the work session with Bon Snidemiller, senior director for transportation, saying the contract will cost $1,716,000 over five years. It would cost $1,289,000 the first year and $106,700 a year for the following four years.
Snidemiller said they would pay the first year's costs from savings in the current transportation budget. This woud be in lieu of putting the money into fund balance.
Snidemiller said they had budgeted $3.30 per gallon for fuel but were able to do a bulk purchase for $2.97 per gallon. Wake used to buy fuel under the state contract but is now able to do it cheaper.
Snidemiller said at the start of the fiscal year they monitor fuel prices and watch as it drops. When it looks like it's starting to go up, he said they work with a purchasing group to prebuy 1.2 million or 1.3 million gallons, which is half the fuel for the year.
Wake has used the approach to generate similar savings in recent years as fuel costs have risen.
School board member Jim Martin said he's not saying he's against the GPS deal. He would actually vote for it later in the day. But Martin questioned how staff has this money when it said a few weeks ago it didn't have the funds to provide transportation for preassigned feeder students without bus service.
Earlier in the work session, Chief Transformation Officer Judy Peppler told the board they had sent 473 letters to preassigned students who don't have transportation.
Peppler said they had gotten back 180 responses so far with 10 saying they'd keep their current assignment and provide their own transportation.
Peppler said they had 113 responses saying they'd like to get bus service to their preassigned school if it's possible for Wake to extend an existing route.
Peppler said 53 responded they want a different assignment that would come with transportation. She said four responded they'd like to get bus service extended if possible to their preassigned school but would like another assignment if that's not possible.
Back to Snidemiller's response to Martin's question. Snidemiller said they made a business decision that using the money for the GPS system is appropriate because it will generate savings over the next five years. Wake say s it's conservatively expecting to save $3,750,000 over five years with the contract cost being paid back in 1.7 years.
Snidemiller said they'd save on how much fuel they'd use and save from being more efficient in determining how many buses and drivers are needed.
Snidemiller said the current computerized routing system doesn't let them go out and check all 2,500 runs. But he said the GPS system will allow them to know exactly where a bus is, how long it’s there and if it’s going as planned.
Snidemiller said it will cut down on mileage, fuel and idling.
For instance, Snidemiller said they had been piloting the system and found what was probably s bus on a midday field trip that was idling for 90 minutes on a hot day.
Snidemiller said one of the things the new system will do is give them a daily report that includes things such as which buses were idling for more than 10 minutes
“This is kind of a business decision to build the most efficient busing system that we can," Snidemiller said
Snidemiller added that the state's other large districts already have GPS units in their buses.
Martin asked why it wasn't included in the new 2012-13 budget.
Snidemiller answered that if they had put it in the new budget that instead of using their "windfall of savings" they'd have to request an additional $1.3 million in funding.
Martin said it appeared they were prioritizing capital costs over transporting students.
Chief Facilities and Operations Officer Don Haydon pointed back again to the savings and efficiencies of using the GPS monitoring system. For instance, he said they can see if a driver is inserting extra steps every now and then for a plate full of brownies.
Martin asked why they didn't combine the GPS option into phones for drivers. While all drivers have a phone issued by the district, Snidemiller said that technology can't do all the things that the GPS unit can.
Haydon added that one of the things that had sold him on the GPS units was remembering what happened in January 2005 when the ice storm had them at 2 a.m. still not knowing where some stranded buses were located.
"We’ll know where every bus is every time," Haydon said.
School board member Debra Goldman, answering Martin's question, said the driver can turn off the phone or leave it at home. But she said the GPS unit will be tied to the bus and can't be overridden by the driver.
School board member Susan Evans said she had "to be a stickler here about process."
"I agree that this is a wonderful initiative and something I’d like to see us have and there’s a lot of rationale for it," Evans said. "And who knows what the cost savings will definitely be from having it from a cost perspective. But there’s a lot of reason why we’d want to have such a system. I agree with all of that.
I am questioning coming to us at this time with this request. I sort of agree with Dr. Martin’s comments on them. I kind of hate that Mr. (Chief Business Officer David) Neter is not here because it seems to me that we don’t really have designated funds.
I appreciate the fact that the transportation department has saved money by banking up fuel. But you know there’s a lot of other areas that departments have saved money and that money rolls into our fund balance and then we have to decide globally what all our needs are and how we spend our money.
We just finished the budget preparation process. If this was something the transportation department was desirous of, I would have liked to have seen a business plan and I would have liked to have seen it be part of the budget. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to just put it out and say this is a higher priority than paying our teacher assistants, or our assistant principals, or anything else just because the transportation department has saved us money.
I just think it becomes part of fund balance and has to become part of that overall conversation of what are our priorities for our money so I’m just a little uncomfortable with this idea that we come because the transportation department saved some money and we spend it on something we want to spend it with and we’ve usurped the budget process and so I’m just uncomfortable with it.”
School board member John Tedesco called the budget "a live organic process" that's "continuously evolving."
“If this is a piece that will allow us to generate significant savings at this time then we can change as a system how we use that money,” Tedesco said.
Goldman responded to Evans by pointing back to the savings from the GPS units.
"You sometimes have to spend a little to save a lot," Goldman said. "But the added benefit is all the extra monitoring, safety, efficiency that we’re going to bring to the table with this so it’s not just dollars and cents. There’s a lot more involved here.”
School board member Christine Kushner asked if the units will help when there are substitute drivers who aren't as familiar with the route.
Snidemiller said they'll be able to monitor in real time and help drivers get back on track. The monitoring would be handled by the district that the bus is from. Snidemiller said each district oversees about 60 buses,
School board member Chris Malone said his company has basically used the kind of GPS monitoring system and has generated savings.
Peppler said that if the board authorizes staff to sign the contract that there's one element that still has to be resolved.
The contract calls for the vendor to install key pads in all the vehicles by June 30. Peppler said that the vendor will have them up before traditional calendar school opens but not necessarily by the end of this month.
Snidemiller said the pad is something that drivers would sign into when they get into the bus. They'll also record the kind of run they're going on. He said this will allow them o eliminate punching in of time cards which Haydon said will provide payroll control savings.
As they were wrapping up discussion, Tedesco joked that it's “Big Brother at its best."
When it came time to vote in the regular meeting, the board amended the item to say they'll give the vendor until July 31 to install the pads.
During the discussion, Evans said she wanted to make her thoughts known again for the record.
“I certainly acknowledge that this is a desirable technological advance that I understand would benefit our transportation department greatly," Evans said. "However I have a problem with the process, piecemeal approving this one item without consideration for the entire budget, without consideration for our entire funds and fund balance and the way that it is being done isolated and is not part of the budget process and so I’m just not sure I can support it at this time.
I mean there are a number of initiatives that I could come up with that I think would be wonderfully great initiatives if we could fund all of them. But I’m sitting here knowing that we were not able to fund our teacher assistants effectively this year, our janitorial services effectively this year, our assistant principals.
So I’m having a hard time just saying, ‘Okay, we saved some money and now we can spend it on a new toy for the transportation department.’ I’d like to buy every high school student in Wake County laptops or iPads. That would be a great development, but we can’t necessarily afford to do that so I just want to register my thoughts that I do not agree with the process of piecemeal approval of a budget item like this."
Tedesco and Goldman took exception to Evans calling the new units a "toy."
“I certainly respect your concern for the process," Tedesco responded to Evans. "I would take a little umbrage with the idea that we’re just buying some new toy for transportation. I think that is not necessarily the right approach.
I do value the opportunity that this is designed to create additional efficiencies that will help us save millions of dollars moving forward so that in future years, particularly next year and the year after as we know there’s going to be continued shortages and we continue to be behind the curve in how we support our teachers and teacher assistants, that this will generate additional revenue that we can use to support academic achievement in this district.”
“I too take umbrage with the word toy in reference to a significant piece of equipment that can increase the safety and the efficiency of our bus rides and our system," Goldman said. "So I also completely agree with John said and there’s no reason to repeat what he just said, but I think this is a real boon to the system.”
Kushner signaled her later vote against the contract.
"While I would like to investigate this more, I feel like we really weren’t given enough details in time and would really like to think through the ramifications and how it’s going to be implemented," Kushner said. "At this time I do have concerns about just the process of how we’re voting on this. I would also like to perhaps think through delaying it to the next meeting so we can have more time to think through how it’s going to be implemented and just to be able to study it greater than since the work session.”
Malone recapped what he said in the work session about how his company benefited from the cost savings and accountability of using similar GPS monitoring units,
“It’s a win-win situation for everybody and I think we should all vote for this," Malone said.
The vote then went 7-2 with Evans and Kushner the only dissenters.