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Montco districts' struggle with joint busing plan for private schools

Facing tough economic times and cutbacks in state aid, six Montgomery County school districts are seeking to cut transportation costs by combining private school-bus routes.

Facing tough economic times and cutbacks in state aid, six Montgomery County school districts are seeking to cut transportation costs by combining private school-bus routes.

It has been rough going so far, with major problems in the first days marring the effort, leading most of the districts to scale back.

Pennsylvania public schools that provide their students with transportation must also give rides to private schools within 10 miles of their borders. Often, buses pass through neighboring districts on their way.

This spring, in one of the first experiments of its kind in the state, the Hatboro-Horsham, Lower Moreland, North Penn, Upper Dublin, Upper Moreland, and Wissahickon districts formed the Montgomery County Transportation Consortium.

They planned to save millions of dollars, ease traffic congestion, and generate fewer hydrocarbons by merging many private-school routes.

Each district would still handle private school busing within its boundaries. But outside their borders, they would pick up children from the consortium districts they passed through.

Almost immediately, the wheels started coming off the scheme.

One district - Upper Moreland - backed out before school started, saying it was focusing on other matters.

As classes began, there were delays in getting route information to districts, and fall flooding temporarily put some buses out of commission.

The result: At dozens of private schools, students arrived very late; some were not picked up at all. Drivers got lost; students ended up giving them directions. Some children arrived home only after riding for hours.

At the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, about 85 students get transportation from consortium districts. For the first month or so of school, "it was a tremendous challenge," said Lizann Rode, an administrator there. "We start at 8 a.m.; children were arriving after 9:30."

Horsham resident Lisa Broida Bailey, who has two daughters at the school, said she had to switch work hours temporarily to drive them there instead of subjecting them to the bus ride. For a while, "it was two hours to school and two hours back," she said. The consortium plan, she said, is "a great idea. I'm for it, but not if it is going to double or triple their ride."

In September, angry parents besieged several school board meetings. Hatboro-Horsham, Lower Moreland, and Upper Dublin decided to take back most bus routes. North Penn and Wissahickon stuck with the program, scrambling to readjust routes and add buses.

Most problems were solved by the end of September. Some routes continue to be tweaked, with the latest changes made the week of Dec. 15. "In many cases, the transportation we are providing now is better than it was last year," said Robert Schoch, business administrator for the North Penn School District.

School districts have long grappled with how to economically provide transportation to numerous and scattered nonpublic schools.

The original plan was for the six districts to take more than 3,700 students to about 365 schools.

Nonpublic busing cost the six districts about $7.4 million in 2009-10. The consortium plan was to have saved about $2.6 million in the first year ($2 million after Upper Moreland pulled out).

Hopes were high for rapid expansion; an earlier study showed that if all schools in Bucks and Montgomery Counties joined in a similar effort, it would save $17 million.

Instead, the consortium cut back to about 1,300 students in 105 schools after the fall fiasco, said Tim Ammon, a vice president with Management Partnership Services (MPS), the Maryland company the consortium hired to manage the busing.

Ammon said MPS miscalculated how fast, on average, the buses would be able to drive. That, with delays in getting routes out, caused a cascade of problems. "We apologize for the inconvenience and anxiety," he said. "It was terrifically unfortunate."

The consortium districts will decide in June whether to continue. Even with all the problems, most want to forge ahead.

"If this were easy, we would have done it years ago," said Schoch. Once the kinks are worked out, he said, the consortium can "provide better service at lower cost. . . . This is not something we can walk away from."

Some private-school parents are not convinced. North Wales resident Kathleen Brunner, whose sons went through numerous travails in September getting to La Salle College High School and Ancillae Assumpta Academy, said last week: "They have made a huge effort to fix things, and it is working wonderfully."

But she said she feared the districts were targeting private-school students for savings at the price of providing them with second-class bus service. "Will we go through this same thing again next year? - I'm afraid we will."