Amid an ongoing municipal budget crisis, another program is on the chopping block in New Haven: funding for school buses.

Newly appointed New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Carol Birks grappled with issues stemming from a statewide budget deficit at her first board of education meeting on the job. New Haven Public Schools officials and school board members heatedly discussed how to efficiently reconfigure and cut costs within the school transportation contract, worth $25 million annually. The board, which is running a $7 million deficit this fiscal year alone, is readying a bidding process for potential transportation contractors as the city’s agreement with its current bus contractor, First Student, comes to an end.

“At best, we’re looking at a cut of $3 to 4 million, and even that is with us being on knees, hands folded and saying a lot of prayers,” New Haven Board of Education President Darnell Goldson said.

The current system provides transportation to three different categories of people: students going to public schools, students with special needs and magnet school students. The current contract is nearing the end of its five-year cycle, and First Student has made it clear to William Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, that it has no plans to renew its contract at a lower price.

This puts the board between a rock and a hard place, as a lower price is exactly what it needs to fill gaping financial holes. Mayor Toni Harp allocated $5 million less to education in her budget proposal for the next fiscal year to the Board of Alders than what the board needs to keep current programs afloat. According to Goldson, transportation will be the “lowest hanging fruit” if the board has to make cuts.

“We’re trying to protect classrooms from being touched, students from being overcrowded and teachers from being reduced,” Goldson said.

The board considered cuts to transportation in February, when then-interim Superintendent Reginald Mayo discovered that the city could save $750,000 by reconfiguring the bus contract.

But even that figure would not be enough to compensate for the reduced budget Harp plans to give the board for the next fiscal year. Indeed, at the time the proposal came up, board member Jamell Cotto said he was “disgusted” at how little $750,000 was relative to the entire transportation budget of $25 million, arguing for more aggressive cuts.

The board plans on working out a time-efficient and cost-efficient bus route while adjusting the scope of the system. Of the 4,883 students enrolled in New Haven high schools, 750 hail from the suburbs and commute to magnet schools, which results in a sprawling, complex network.

Cotto suggested that the city negotiate with the state to arrange CT Transit bus passes at reduced rates for high school students. At the moment, 4,883 high school students are signed up for the city’s bus service — if these numbers were transferred to the state bus system, the new bus contract would require many fewer buses.

Still, Clark said he doubts this would cut costs because the same buses transport kids from lower grades as well.

“When you cut it from high school, you have to cut it from the others too,” Clark said. “Otherwise we still use that bus.”

But Birks endorsed Cotto’s approach and asked Clark for a follow up on the board’s questions. At its next meeting, the board will get updates on conversations with CT Transit and a cross-comparison of school transportation in cities of similar sizes.

Birks started her term on March 19.

Nicole Ahn |