PEKIN — Two local school districts have sticker shock over a bill from the city of Pekin Bus Department to transport students in the coming school year.
When asked about the higher rates, Pekin City Manager Tony Carson said he could not discuss the issue because the terms are still being discussed. “There’s really nothing I can provide you at this point other than I’m confident that the city and the schools will come to agreements that are beneficial to all parties.”
Carson said in a letter May 10 that he revised the original contractual offer for District 303 from $1,284,988 down to $1,234,988 — a $50,000 difference for the 2017-2018 school year. He also modified the fuel reimbursement by eliminating a 10 percent gas surcharge fee and an increase from $40 to $125 minimum fee for bus charters.
The original offer from Carson, dated March 20 of $1,284,988 million, would have been an $84,988 increase from what the district paid for the 2016-2017 school year.
The district paid $1,200,000 this year and questioned the increases.
Carson said in the May letter that the city will be operating at a deficit in the coming year without the increase to the two districts.
The city is requiring the districts to reach an agreement with the city on the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 contract by Dec. 31. If an agreement is not reached, the city will implement the non-appropriation clause to discontinue the bus service at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, said Carson in the March letter.
“I believe it is in the best interests of all parties to continue the busing relationship,” said Carson in the letter. “Saying that, it is imperative that the city do so in a fiscally responsible manner.”
District 303 Director of Business Operations Carla Schaefer said the revisions to the proposal make it a fair deal. The districts will meet with the city in the fall to negotiate the next contract.
District Superintendent Danielle Owens said the district has never been told by the city that there was a deficit in the city bus department.
The district has approximately 1,830 students.
Carson also sent a letter on May 10 proposing District 108 pay $2,603,786 for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as the same adjustments afforded to District 303 for charters and fuel costs.
The city sent a letter in March proposing District 108 pay a cost of $2,853,786 for busing; charters on Monday through Friday, $1 per mile with a 10 percent surcharge; $22 per hour; and a $40 minimum charge. The original offer was $250,000 more than the May offer.
The district’s contract with the city for 2016-2017 was $2,387,269, not including add-ons. The add-ons, which are expected to be approximately $130,000 this year, include adding extra bus monitors or route changes. The city buses approximately 2,200 students for the district.
The issue, said Superintendent Bill Link, is that transportation funds received from the state are prorated — the district only gets 72 percent of what the state owes. The district uses revenues from property taxes and other sources to pay the remainder of the transportation charges.
Link said he can’t answer every question “because I can’t get inside of (the city’s) thinking.”
“We’ve enumerated our concerns and referred back to our intergovernmental agreement when we were presented with the first proposal, which has ended with this piece,” said Link. “When we put the intergovernmental agreement together at the request of the city, the spirit of the arrangement was to be mutually beneficial to both parties — the school district and the city.
“The benefit for the district was for us to be able to have a mechanism to control our cost for transportation. And how we would do that would be to work with the city in determining the cost based on their need and our ability to pay a fair price.”
There was no such conversation this year. The letter informing the district of the cost hike came in March with no discussion between the parties, said Link. The only prior discussion was about the bus service in general terms.
Link said the district is happy with the city’s bus service because of the quality, high level of responsiveness, help with emerging situations and consistency with drivers on routes.
But, “It’s my belief, with the change in leadership, there may be some philosophical differences going forward,” said Link. “It was a surprise. We were caught off guard because it’s not in the range we’re accustomed to. Link and District 303 Finance Director Glayn Worrell both said they have never been told that before and they have no way of knowing if that is so.
Worrell said it takes six to eight months to bid out the bus contract, get it up and running prior to a school year and it is too late to do so for the upcoming year.
The district has only so many options it will consider for transportation — the city, contracting the service out to a private service or lease its own buses and get a management company to run the service. The other option the district does not want to consider would be to do away with bus service and have parents bring children to school.
Worrell said busing students is safer, keeps a lot of cars off the roads and such a move “would be very chaotic.”
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin