Pre-K mini bus lease contract increases 400% in District 161

At its Jan. 23 meeting, Flossmoor School District 161 board members discussed a sharp increase in the district’s cost to lease two mini buses. 

The district received a new lease proposal from Midwest Transit, as its four-year contract with the company is set to renew. The cost to lease two mini buses is increasing from $15,770 per year to $57,702 per year. 

The district uses the buses, which each seat about 30 passengers, to transport children who are in early childhood and pre-K programs, and some with special needs. Unlike its main bus fleet operated by Kickert Transportation, the district provides its own drivers and aides for these mini buses, and also pays for fuel and maintenance services. 

Associate Superintendent Fran LaBella said she was “flabbergasted” to see the new contract proposal. She spoke to the board and then introduced Midwest Transit representative Matt Garr, who attributed the contract increase to high interest rates and the rapidly rising cost of new buses.

Board member Michael Rouse pressed Garr to elaborate on his explanation.

“I understand interest rates have gone up, but we’re looking at a 400% increase,” Rouse said. “That needs a little further explaining.”

Garr replied that the price of new mini buses has doubled due to supply shortages. That, combined with higher interest rates, has increased lease costs for all Midwest Transit’s clients.

LaBella presented board members with three options:

Option 1: Enter into a new two-year agreement with Midwest Transit to lease two 2023 mini buses for a cost of $28,851 per bus per year. (An increase of $20,966 per bus per year.) 

Option 2: Keep the 2018 mini buses and extend the existing lease with Midwest Transit for another two years, at a cost of $12,994 per bus per year. (An increase of $5,109 per bus per year.)

Option 3: Buy the 2018 mini buses it is currently leasing for $63,298 per bus, a total of $126,596.

Some board members also asked about the cost of buying a new mini bus, and Midwest Transport quoted a 2023 model at $99,570. Supply chain delays mean new buses, whether leased or purchased, may not be delivered until after the start of next school year, LaBella said.

Board member David Linnear mused about the district buying its own bus fleet. He said these issues seem to come up every year, and suggested the board have “a deeper conversation about transportation.” 

“To what end?” LaBella asked in reply. “We can’t build a bus barn. We can’t find drivers. I don’t know what conversation you want to have.” 

Superintendent Dana Smith said that buying and maintaining a fleet of buses is a “seven-figure expenditure on an ongoing basis.”

Later, board member Janelle Scharon said the board does need to think about the future of transportation in the district, given its growing needs, and plan for larger conversations about how it will cover consistently increasing costs.

Another option discussed was the district ending its leasing arrangement with Midwest Transport, and rolling the mini bus service into its existing bus contract with Kickert. LaBella expressed hesitancy with that idea because of what she said is a lack of consistency in Kickert’s service. The current leasing system allows the district to more closely control this specialized transportation.

“We’re talking about our smallest children with our greatest needs,” LaBella said. “These are our buses, our drivers, our two aides – this is the most consistently run part of our transportation department.”

Board member Cameron Nelson asked Garr what value Midwest Transit adds, beyond arranging the purchase financing for the district. Garr had little to say in reply.

“You can definitely buy the buses or lease them yourself,” he said.

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