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By Phil Vallone

On Tuesday, communities across New York voted on their school district budgets. And in budget after budget, these communities were forced to choose between fewer teachers and higher taxes.

For many schools, it does not have to be this way.

Right now, school districts across upstate New York and Long Island could save 20 percent of their transportation costs by simply switching from district-run transportation operations to cost-effective private school bus operators. This would save state education funds, take the pressure off local taxpayers and keep more teachers on the job.

To make this switch worthwhile for school districts, the New York School Bus Contractors Association is supporting legislation sponsored by State Sen. John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, that would allow schools to keep unspent state transportation dollars saved by making the switch, allowing these schools to use the savings for in-classroom purposes for up to five years. The local districts keep the funds, while the state is able to freeze transportation aid to that district over the same time period. It’s a win for the state, the taxpayers and the schools.

How do we know schools would save so much? Because many districts are already seeing the savings. About half of New York’s public school districts currently use private contractors, including the Big Five districts of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers. Across the state, the use of contractors is already saving a combined $200 million in transportation costs each year. The Manhasset School District on Long Island, for example, is saving more than $1 million a year in school transportation costs thanks to private school bus operators.

Yet many schools in New York State continue to opt for district-run transportation operations, at greater costs to taxpayers. This is happening primarily in the heavily taxed suburban districts across upstate and on Long Island. These are the very districts where the savings from switching to private contractors would be the greatest. In total, it is estimated districts could save a combined $100 million more per year in transportation costs.

The proposal by the New York School Bus Contractors Association offers a real solution that will help cash-strapped school districts reduce transportation costs while maintaining the highest levels of safety for students. In the long run, this legislative solution will save the state tens of millions a year on transportation costs, if not more.

Most importantly, this legislative change will mean fewer communities having to make tough decisions with their school budget votes each May. That translates to more teachers, smaller classes and lower property taxes. And that’s an easy vote for everyone.

Phil Vallone is president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association.