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Baton Rouge School Bus Crisis Raises Budget Concerns; External Audit Proposed

School authorities have identified over $17.4 million in recent spending, a figure that excludes certain known expenditures

The ongoing student transportation crisis in Baton Rouge is a significant operational challenge for the school system and a financial concern that requires careful planning and evaluation of budgetary allocations. School authorities have identified over $17.4 million in recent spending, a figure that excludes certain known expenditures, including a recent administrative approval for a pay raise for cafeteria workers. Furthermore, additional expenditure is expected, although the exact amount remains uncertain.

The newly appointed Transportation Director, Kelvin Ridgley, has outlined plans to acquire or lease as many as 161 new air-conditioned buses by the following summer. This substantial acquisition comes on the heels of adding 56 new buses to the fleet in the past six months, with more in the pipeline. Such a rapid influx of buses has yet to be witnessed since the August 2016 floods, highlighting the severity of the current situation.

The district has enlisted external assistance to expedite repairs, reactivating several previously inactive buses. Despite persistent challenges, Ridgley has reported progress in recruiting new drivers and addressing the driver shortage that initially triggered the crisis.

However, concerns persist, notably regarding the number of missed routes and a decline in the number of working drivers. The Transportation Department plans to deploy radio-frequency ID devices, offering parents improved tracking capabilities for their children's school bus journeys.

The substantial spending to mitigate the transportation crisis is putting a strain on the district's finances. After factoring in recent expenditures, the previously projected surplus for the 2023-24 fiscal year has diminished from $91 million to approximately $57 million. This reduction in surplus presents a challenge for composing the 2024-25 budget, especially with plans for employee stipends and pay raises in subsequent years.

To enhance budgeting processes and address concerns about fiscal practices, board members are advocating for an external audit of the board’s fiscal policies and practices. However, discussions are ongoing to determine the best approach for this review.

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