More than 10 percent of the Boston Public Schools budget goes to transporting children to and from school. That means the district spends more on transportation per student than any of the other 100 largest school districts in the country.
"Boston Public Schools spends five times more per student than a typical school district our size," says Tommy Chang, the district's superintendent. "Transportation is one of our most baffling issues."
It may be baffling, but Boston Public Schools is taking it on. In their most recent long-term financial planning report, officials proposed three ideas on how to lower the transit price tag.
Idea 1: Require Students To Go To Schools Closer To Home
Since the 1970s, many Boston children have driven past their neighborhood school on their way to class in another part of the city. That makes for long – and costly – trips.
However, several years ago, the district began incorporating what it calls a home-based approach.
“We’ve changed how we’ve assigned students to our schools to get them closer to home,” said Chang.
The district’s new approach saves money. But Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP's Boston branch, says it's about more than dollars and cents.
“I do think it’s important to remember why we had busing in the city of Boston to begin with.” Sullivan is referencing a 1974 court order that vastly expanded busing in an effort to desegregate schools.
Sullivan says she understands that money saved on transit could be reinvested in classrooms. But, she says, when kids go to their local schools, there's another factor to consider: “The concern there then becomes diversity and inclusion,” she said.
“We know the city of Boston is a diverse city, but we also know that it’s incredibly segregated based upon race and ethnicity,” Sullivan explained. “What’s that going to mean when our young people don’t have the opportunity to go to school with people who are different from them?”
Eleanor Laurans, chief financial officer of Boston Public Schools, says the district understands these concerns and makes decisions “slowly and purposefully.”
Idea 2: Cut Costs By Reducing The Number Of Kids Offered Transportation
As the district's most recent financial plan puts it, the Boston school system is "more generous than state requirements" when it comes to transportation.
The district offers more young kids bus service than regulations mandate. And BPS gives 7th to 12th graders free or subsidized T passes, which the state does not require it to do.
The report estimates the district could save $8 to 10 million by limiting its services to what’s necessary to comply with the law.
Some Boston Public School students say that would be a bad idea. Kendra Gerald, a 10th grader, says it’s hard to get by with the current system. “It’s become expensive for families,” she said.
Gerald used to live 1.7 miles away from school. That meant she was eligible for a subsidized MBTA pass and had to pay to go to school each day: half the regular price of riding the T, or $30 per month.
Gerald says that adds up for her family, and for others with multiple kids going to Boston schools.
"I know a lot of people who are like, ‘I am just not going to go to school today because my parents didn't have money to give me to take the bus.’ ”
Idea Number Three: Make Bus Routes Efficient
Superintendent Tommy Chang says the district may be able to cut costs by tweaking school start times and making bus routes more efficient.
Doing this is a massive math problem fit for computer scientists and mathematicians. That's why Chang recently took a lesson from techies and launched a hackathon-esque challenge.
“Like how NASA does and Google does and how X Prize does,” Chang said last month. “We have the opportunity to pull away and to think disruptively.”
Chang invited citizens and corporations – like FedEx – to compete in writing the best bus algorithm.
As groups huddled in District Hall – a Seaport district innovation hub – they had questions and ideas: "We could utilize maybe a smaller vehicle rather than a giant school bus,” suggested one participant.
"Can you use city buses that are out of service on their way to start their route?” asked another.
Later this week, Boston Public Schools will announce the results for the first stage of the hackathon challenge. They hope that it will put them on the road to solving the complicated math of school busing.
Our coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.