TRAVERSE CITY — Suttons Bay Public School students will take public transit to and from school next year after all.
The district’s Board of Education this week voted to continue purchasing Bay Area Transportation Authority bus passes in bulk so students can ride BATA buses to class when school starts Sept. 3.
“It was a difficult decision in some aspects, but because of our financial situation it was the only decision to make,” Superintendent Mike Murray said.
About half of the 600 students enrolled at Suttons Bay schools began using the regional public transit authority’s ‘flex routes’ after the district eliminated its busing services in 2010. But the future of that arrangement appeared doomed after the Federal Transit Administration in March ordered BATA to end the routes because they violated federal regulations.
BATA administrators said last month said they changed the routes to comply with regulations.
School board members considered three options for district transportation: reinstate district busing, hire a private school bus operator, or use BATA.
District officials estimated internal busing service would cost roughly $650,000 annually.
The district received two bids for transportation services from Lansing-based Dean Transportation and Cincinnati-based Auxilio Services, but contracting with either company would cost the district far more than the $124,000 per-year price of bulk BATA bus passes.
Board of Education Treasurer Bob Potvin said BATA clearly offered the best option.
“It was the cheapest option, it gives us good service and it fills the need,” Potvin said.
FTA officials issued their cease-and-desist order after a group of school transportation companies called the National School Transportation Association filed a complaint alleging BATA’s flex routes amounted to unfair competition between federally funded transit agencies and private school bus operators.
Jim Seal, a California-based school bus industry, worked on the original NSTA complaint. He said the NSTA will look at whether BATA’s new routes adhere to federal regulations.
Potvin pointed out Kellie Dean, president of bidder Dean Transportation, sits on the NSTA’s board of directors.
“I think as long as Kellie Dean is on the board of that group, bringing a complaint seems a little self-serving,” Potvin said.
Dean acknowledged his company and other NSTA-affiliated groups have a financial interest in enforcement of FTA regulations, but he added the bigger concern is how federal tax dollars are spent.
“Basically, we are a private business competing against our own tax dollars,” Dean said in April.