The front section of Sunday’s Orange County Register has a story by Nicole Knight Shine about the recent doubling of the school bus fees paid by local parents. Shine reveals information that I did not have at the time of my Sept. 3 post and what she writes is more than discouraging, it’s head-shaking.

According to Shine, “…two-thirds of the more than 4,000 students on the [N-MUSD buses] on a typical day get a free ride, school district officials confirmed. Another five percent pay half.”

Let’s put the “halfers” aside for now.

Last month I estimated that there were about 4,800 kids riding the buses. Based on that, I estimated that the windfall the district may get will probably top out at about 1/3 of one percent of the overall budget. But if the district is correct and two-thirds of the students will continue to ride for free, the windfall is not 1/3 of one percent of the overall budget, it is even smaller.

This additional (approximately) $250,000 is about 4 percent of the transportation department’s deficit of $6 million.

In other words, this fee hike is will not help reduce the deficit in any meaningful way and affects only those who can afford to pay the extra money. Everyone else who was riding for free will continue to ride for free.

So why did they raise the fees? Why did they decide to squeeze the people who can afford it? Because there is no actual strategic thinking in the administration, no entrepreneurial mindset there that would have looked at the problem and come up with a long-term plan. So instead, someone proposes a fee hike, thinking that it will make a difference. It won’t, but it was the easy thing to do.

And why now? Why after 20 years of no fee hikes did the admin suggest – and the board approve – a doubling of the fees? Sort of the same reason. There is no incentive on Bear St. to do anything other than what needs to be done that day. No one gets a bonus for sticking their neck out or taking a chance. Stick your neck out and it’s more likely to get cut off.

So the bureaucrats show up day after day, reacting to the problem du jour and throwing some solution against the wall hoping it sticks.

A handful of those bureaucrats – roughly the top 12 – are pulling down about $3 million in taxpayer compensation. Yet, between all of these high-salaried people, the best solution to reducing the bus deficit was to double the fees for the third of the passengers who pay full price.

But hey, when all is said and done, maybe the extra quarter of a million in bus money is like what Trustee Vicki Snell said last year about the money for the unproductive conference budget: “It’s a drop in the bucket.”

Steve Smith

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