BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The Board of Education on Monday approved a $3.6-million contract with the Somerset County Educational Services Commission to fulfill the district's school busing needs for 2016-2017. At the same time, the board also approved a retroactive contract for $3.558-million for the year just ending, an amount that may be subject to later revision.

The contract amounts are covered within the school budgets already approved by the Board of Education, according to school officials. 

Bus routes being reworked

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However, in order to close a deficit that the ESC said existed in providing bus service for this year, the school district has been working with the bus company to rework routes for about 2,600 students who ride buses to the township's six schools. 

The goal is to reduce the number of buses by consolidating routes - a move that will make routes longer for some students, but which the school's Business Administrator, Rod McLaughlin, said will more efficiently fill buses that now are only on average about 66 percent filled to capacity.

McLaughlin reported to the board on Monday that so far it looks like one bus route can be eliminated to each of the township's four elementary schools, and that consolidating routes could eliminate the need for four other buses needed to transport students to the William Annin Middle School.

The routes for students at Ridge High School have not yet been examined, he said.

Following the meeting, McLaughlin said that if eight routes are eliminated, the ESC's school bus costs would be reduced by in the vicinity of about $370,000. In an answer to a question, he said the school district this year has had about 92 bus routes, including transportation for special education students.

Since last year, the ESC, which serves numerous school districts in the county, has estimated its costs of providing bus service to Bernards Township schools have exceeded its income by anywhere between $350,000 to about $450,000 or so.

The school district worked out an arrangement that the ESC would continue to provide bus service for the 2015-16 school year with the amount of the contract to be set at the end of the year.

The ESC's costs for the past year are still being audited, McLaughlin said.

School officials said that a revised amount for the contract amount for 2015-16 could be added to a subsequent year's budget.

But Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian added on Monday that the amount approved by the school board is "within range."

Markarian and other school officials have said several times that they would be sensitive to making sure that students weren't spending too long a trip on school buses.

McLaughlin said some time on routes might be saved by making more "group stops" along the way, rather than stopping more frequently at individual spots so close together.

As in previous years, the routes won't be set until late August, when the school district has a better idea of which students are moving in and out of the township.

Bus assignments are typically sent out shortly before Labor Day.

McLaughlin also explained that a few of the school buses, built to carry 54 students, have been running routes with as few as 17 or 20 riders. "That's just very cost ineffective," he said to board members.