Stockton’s savvy transit director goes outside the box to save big bucks

In the two-plus years since he took charge of its transportation department, Carlos Chicas has saved the Stockton Unified School District nearly $1.4 million, with an ongoing savings of $650,000 expected annually.

It wasn't done by cutting service - the district has actually been taking on more and more of its own special education transportation, most having been contracted to outside companies for years. Buses have been upgraded and installed with the latest video and GPS tracking equipment - also linked to reduced expenses.

In fact, the Stockton USD transportation department is now contemplating offering similar services to nearby, smaller districts that also contract out for special needs bussing, a move that will save those districts money and bring revenue to Stockton schools.

In these times of economic crises and school budget reductions, innovative thinking like that of Chicas' is welcomed by cash-strapped districts struggling to maintain basic programs.

It is kind of outside-the-box' thinking," Chicas said of his plan to contract busing out to other districts, "but I believe some of the larger districts should look at ways they can use resources to generate revenue."

Chicas admits that Stockton's transportation department was bloated and somewhat dysfunctional when he arrived in the spring of 2010, so there were some obvious places to cut and tighten expenditures.

But the real shift started when Chicas began to reconsider the way services were being provided, and he implemented a new routing program that integrated regular and special education students and eliminated 13 routes without reducing levels of service.

A grant from the California Air Resources Board allowed the district to purchase new, more fuel-efficient mid-size buses designed to carry all riders, including those with disabilities.

Chicas instituted a supervisorial training program for real oversight of the routing system, something he said was sorely lacking.

He was also given carte blanche over the district's K-8 bell schedule - a key component of efficient routing, he said. Staggering bell times allowed the flexibility that was needed for perfectly timed routes.

Ironically, it was Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal last year to eliminate all state transportation money for schools that helped Chicas make headway in restructuring bus driver hours and job descriptions.

"It was the threat of losing transportation funding that drove our negotiations," he said.

The number of employees was reduced as 46 routes were reworked and consolidated to 38, and the savings was immediately apparent - $700,000 the first year.

So it wasn't a hard sell when Chicas wanted to spend $80,000 installing video and GPS tracking equipment on the bus fleet, and another $15,000 a year to use and maintain it.

The video system "cuts down on maintenance of issues that come up," the transportation director said, because staff is able to get to the bottom of the problem quicker. There's also the issue of potential liability issues stemming from onboard incidents - which can also be reduced simply by the presence of the cameras.

The GPS tracking equipment not only allows the district to keep tabs on its buses and students - who will soon have card readers that monitor their boarding and disembarking times - but also provide data that will help save money.

Bus drivers are notorious, said Chicas, for letting their buses idle while on lengthy stops. The GPS system, which monitors idling time, will be a reminder to them to turn the engine off, helping to cut down on the district's $1 million annual fuel bill.

Stockton Unified also partners with the local public transit system, San Joaquin Regional Transportation District, to transport high school students. RTD reconfigured some of its own routes to meet students' needs, and the school district subsidizes student purchases of reduced-rate bus passes, which the kids can use every day of the year.

Transporting those students would cost the district at least three times the $500,000 bus pass program, Chicas said.

As for the district expanding its transportation services to surrounding districts, area contractors who up until now have been the only game in town aren't happy about the plan.

But with little competition, the price of the contracts have grown more expensive year after year, to the point that it's cheaper for a larger district to handle its own special needs transportation.

"It's been tough, and there's still some tough times to come," Chicas said, "so if we can do it cheaper than the contractor, then why not explore helping surrounding districts save some money and bring us some revenue?"