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Dearth of Reliable Data on Bus Costs Makes State Comparisons Tough

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It has become an article of faith in New Jersey's political and educational circles that the state's school busing costs are way out of whack.

This perception contributed strongly to the recent launch of a state investigation into whether New Jersey school bus contractors were conspiring to drive up prices. And it is heavily influencing the ongoing debate in the legislature over reforming the state's school transportation system.

But even those most convinced that New Jersey's per-pupil busing costs are exorbitant concede that the statistical basis for their beliefs is shaky at best.

"No one is secure with the numbers," said Linda Wells, the manager of the state education department's bureau of pupil transportation.

The source of the uncertainty is a nationwide dearth of reliable data comparing school transportation expenses among states.

Even the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, relies for some of its figures on a California school bus trade magazine that acknowledges potentially serious flaws in its own data.

"It's very difficult to make those comparisons," said Karen Finkel, the executive director of the Springfield, Va.-based National School Transportation Association, which represents commercial school bus companies. "You have to compare apples to apples. I haven't seen any study where that's been done."

Data Drive Debate

Yet despite the unreliability of state-to-state comparisons, they have figured prominently in the discussion of school transportation in New Jersey.

Besides the investigation, that debate includes a proposal by a powerful state senator to overhaul the funding system and consolidate responsibility for busing at the county level.

Currently, each of the state's nearly 600 school districts is responsible for the transportation of its own students.

The most visible comparisons were part of a report issued a year ago that recommended changes in the state's formula for funding transportation. The report was prepared by the Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group's office in Parsipanny, N.J. Attempts last week to reach its authors were unsuccessful.

Charts in the report placed New Jersey's average per-pupil transportation cost at $961, far higher than those of 12 other states cited. Nearby New York, for example, was listed as spending $549 per child, Connecticut $578, Delaware $400, and Pennsylvania only $183.

The numbers were picked up in state news accounts and repeated by politicians and interest groups, notably the New Jersey School Boards Association. The problem was that Deloitte & Touche took its figures from data printed in School Bus Fleet, a trade magazine published in Redondo Beach, Calif.

Steve Hirano, the managing editor of the magazine, said that he relied on states' school transportation officials to supply the numbers, and that he could not be sure the survey questions were answered consistently from state to state.

"It may be correct and it may be an appropriate comparison, but it may not be," he said in an interview.

Unfairness Alleged

Another trade magazine, School Transportation News, also based in Redondo Beach, recently printed its own comparisons that ranked New Jersey No. 1 nationally in per-pupil transportation spending. Based on last year's spending, the magazine pegged New Jersey's average at $870. That far outstripped the $754 reported by No. 2 California.

Bill Paul, the magazine's editor and publisher, said he shares the school bus industry's concern over the data's reliability.

"Nobody has a common methodology," Mr. Paul said in an interview. "People at the state level will give you the best that they can as quickly as they can, and then it's on to the next thing."

To representatives of New Jersey's besieged bus contractors, such uncertainty undermines the case that the state's busing costs are out of line.

"It's extremely unfair that they've tried to compare us to other states without knowing how the figures are reported," said Mary Mazzochi, the executive director of the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association, a trade group.

But supporters of reforming the busing system insist that the numbers are a red herring.

Ms. Wells, the state school transportation chief, said she is "confident that our costs are too high," even if she may not have the hard numbers to prove it.

"People don't want to focus on the real issue," she said. "The real issue is we have to consolidate our services."

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