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SRVUSD debates becoming service provider for TRAFFIX bus transportation

School board votes 3-2 to move forward with more insourcing analysis

The school board discussed the possibility of becoming the bus service provider for the San Ramon Valley's traffic congestion relief program Tuesday night.

TRAFFIX is operated by the town of Danville, city of San Ramon, Contra Costa County and the San Ramon Valley Unified School District through a joint powers authority, and it provides bus transportation to and from certain schools in the district. It is not a school bus program, but a traffic congestion relief program -- the school district stopped providing school bus service in 2007 due to a lack of funding.

Tuesday's discussion, which preceded both open and closed board meetings, revolved around a two-phase analysis on bringing TRAFFIX bus service in-house to the school district. School board trustees were deciding whether to move ahead with a second, more in-depth analysis of potential insourcing for final consideration.

Currently, TRAFFIX contracts with student transportation operator First Student for bus service. The contract with First Student was set to expire at the end of this year, but it was extended through the 2018-19 school year.

After some spirited debate among the board during the hour-long meeting, the board ultimately voted 3-2 to move ahead with Phase 2 of the analysis, with board president Ken Mintz and board member Denise Jennison voting against the motion.

"If the numbers work, we believe it will save routes," said board member Rachel Hurd, who serves on the TRAFFIX board along with fellow trustee Greg Marvel. "What we are fairly convinced is that if we go out to bid, the bids will all come in way higher than what we're paying right now and the program will be forced to reduce routes."

TRAFFIX service is funded by Measure J, the half-cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2004. Measure J doesn't completely cover the service, though, and participating families pay $310 annually for bus transportation -- $210 during the district's promotional period, which is less than half of the district's previous program, according to the TRAFFIX website.

After a traffic analysis determined the most congested intersections throughout the San Ramon Valley and district parents were surveyed on their interest in bus transportation for their students, TRAFFIX chose seven schools for service in the 2009-10 school year, adding four more in subsequent years after additional studies.

TRAFFIX currently services Los Cerros and Pine Valley middle schools; Country Club, Green Valley, Walt Disney, Neil Armstrong, Vista Grande and Coyote Creek elementary schools; and California, Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley high schools.

Phase 1 of the insourcing analysis was surface level, said district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich in an opening presentation, focused on possible operating facilities for bus transportation services, and to determine how the school district could serve as both a service provider and a member of the TRAFFIX JPA.

In terms of facility options for bus storage, Phase 1 considered leasing space, purchasing space, or using a district-owned location, potentially as stand-alone operations, parking only operations or through multiple parking sites, Graswich said.

Phase 1 also examined what the governance structure would look like if SRVUSD were to become service provider. A conflict of interest would be created if this were to happen, Graswich said, and steps would need to be taken in order to avoid this conflict: potential board members recusal, alternate form of representation, directors as ex officio, non-voting members, or eliminate board positions.

Legally, she said, the district would need to acquire insurance. Financial risk for both the district and TRAFFIX would be determined through contract negotiations -- a contract, she said, would also need to define risk-management relationships, roles and expectations and compensation to all those who provide the service.

Regardless of what happens, Graswich said, the district's board member and staff representatives have conveyed to TRAFFIX that any action should in no way impact the SRVUSD general funds.

Since the board approved the motion, the TRAFFIX board will now move forward with the more detailed Phase 2, which will explore more technical, programmatic-level structures required for insourcing operations.

Hurd and Marvel were both in favor of proceeding with Phase 2. Marvel said that the second phase of the analysis would demonstrate whether the district could possibly provide better service for cheaper.

"The whole thing comes down to, you have a finite amount of money to provide this service," Marvel said. "Can we provide it at a cost that reduces the outlay for the TRAFFIX board, which means more services can be provided to our students. We could add more buses, more routes, more schools could be serviced."

But Mintz expressed caution about moving forward, in particular voicing concerns regarding perception issues and community reaction. He felt that Phase I should have explored physical logistics at greater length, as the construction of a bus facility in, for example the Monte Vista parking lot, could draw neighbors' opposition.

Mintz also brought up that TRAFFIX buses might start to seem even more like school buses, rather than as part of a traffic congestion relief program -- something which could pose problems since not all schools are serviced by TRAFFIX.

"If it were to hit our general fund...someone can come back to the school district and say, 'you're not providing equal access to services,'" he said.

Superintendent Rick Schmitt also advised against moving forward with Phase II without additional information. He presented to the board the staff recommendation, which was to ask the TRAFFIX board to release the RFP for service providers, to determine if there actually is a problem, to see if bids will be so high as to require bus routes to be cut.

"I’d like more information on what the true cost is, on what the true problem is," he said.

Marvel and Hurd vehemently opposed this option.

"We’ve already asked for extension, we got it," Marvel said. "To ask for another one in my opinion would be inappropriate."

According to Graswich, the decision to move forward with Phase II of the insourcing analysis will now go back to the TRAFFIX board for approval on Tuesday. This phase is expected to take two or three months.

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