The Hernando County school system will save at least $740,000 next year mostly because more efficient bus routes will allow more students to ride each bus.
The money should go a long way to eliminating the district's $2.6 million estimated shortfall for next year's budget and also could mean the board won't need to implement potentially unpopular budget cuts, including suspending junior varsity sports in high schools and eliminating middle school sports.
"All services will be the same. We're just being more efficient with the resources we're given," said school district transportation director Doug Compton.
The savings were largely achieved by adding a stop to each bus route, increasing the average stops from 15 per school to 16, said Compton. That eliminated roughly 15 routes at a cost of about $37,000 per route. Another five routes would be eliminated through services that are coming to an end.
That makes for a total savings of $740,000 with the most significant changes to the student being slightly longer trips due to the extra stop, Compton said.
Since each bus would have more students on board, the district will also get a jump in funding from the state, said chief financial officer Desiree Henegar. It was not immediately clear how much extra money this will bring in.
Superintendant Bryan Blavatt credited much of the improvement to new school bus routing software.
"We're going to be able to streamline our transportation and cut out a number of routes," he said, noting that this type of savings was a good lesson. "It's twofold. Sometimes it's good to invest in certain resources. It's an opportunity to once again look at how we can service our students better and more economically."
The district could save even more money still, cutting 35 routes for a potential savings of roughly $1.3 million. That amount would be saved by making slight adjustments to the bell times and giving each bus driver more runs each morning, meaning that some students would have earlier pickup times.
That might not sit well with some students or parents.
"If you're a parent who loved your bell time, it's going to be too much," Compton said.
He also said he will make several different recommendations to the board, ranging from an option that is most efficient and has the most changes to one that saves less money but requires fewer changes. "It's a big juggling match that we're trying to do right now," he said.
The $2.6 million is the remaining shortfall after staff-level cuts had reduced next year's budget about $4.7 million.
Henegar said that the district would be able to cover the current $2.6 million projected shortfall with the $740,000 from transportation, an additional savings projected savings of $500,000 and tapping into the district's rainy day fund. Diverting that fund into its operating costs would take a roughly $1.4 million chunk out of the shortfall. But it would also put Hernando on a state watch list for districts that let their reserve fund fall below 3 percent of the general fund.
Most of the other cost-cutting ideas Blavatt brought to the board would be unpopular with employees, students or parents. The other ideas include asking union staffers to forgo automatic annual raises and cutting sports offerings.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.