New year brings longer rides for Wake students

khui@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2012 

— Wake County students are dealing with longer bus rides in the new school year because of a transportation plan that cuts costs by putting fewer buses on the road to serve more riders.

Some families at the year-round schools that started this week are seeing bus rides of 75 minutes or more to schools that are less than two miles from home. School officials say they’re working to streamline the routes to reduce times. But they concede that, on average, students will be riding the bus longer than they did last school year.

“We’re going to do everything we can to work with families,” Robert Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, said Wednesday. “But we’ve been up front that the ride times will go up.”

The ride times are increasing at the same time a new choice-based student assignment plan is going into effect. While some parents blame the new plan for the longer rides, Snidemiller and Superintendent Tony Tata say the issues are not related.

For parents dealing with longer-than-expected bus rides, it has been frustrating.

“The kid’s on the bus for an hour,” said Frank Nolan, a Cary father whose son Sean, 10, takes the bus to Adams Elementary School, about a mile from his home. “That’s a waste of an education. Life’s too short for this.”

Just before 8 a.m. Wednesday, Nolan dropped off Sean to catch the bus to Adams Elementary, where classes start at 9:15 a.m. this year. Then Nolan left for his job at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

The bus that Sean Nolan caught was scheduled to make 37 stops, beginning near the intersection of Buck Jones Road and Walnut Street, as far west as High House Road, nearly as far north as the intersection of Harrison Avenue and Chapel Hill Road, then back to Adams, on Cary Town Boulevard. The route is so long because Adams has nine bus routes this school year, down from 16 the prior school year.

This school year, Wake took 25 of its 935 buses off the road. The reason given was efficiency.

Using a formula that takes into account factors such as number of buses on the road and average ridership, the state calculates an efficiency rating for each school district that determines how much money it will receive. The state lowered Wake’s efficiency rate for the 2011-2012 school year to 93 percent, costing the district millions of dollars this school year.

To raise the rating, Wake revised school schedules to allow a fewer number of buses to run longer routes and hold more students. Some buses will now pick up students for two schools at the same time.

“This was a necessary thing to do because we’re losing state efficiency,” Snidemiller said. “We’re losing state funding. But this means the average ride time for students is increasing.”

Rides double or triple

Bus routes haven’t been released yet for the majority of Wake’s 75,000 bus riders who will start school on Aug. 27. But year-round students who returned to class this week are seeing effects such as 20-minute rides last year now being twice as long.

“Now they’ve got kids who live two miles from school sitting on a bus for 45 minutes,” said Allison Young, whose son Matthew has a ride time that’s twice as long as last year to Salem Elementary School in Apex. “I don’t see how they think that’s feasible.”

Students in Wake County have been bused for years, some simply to reach available schools, and others for socioeconomic diversity. However, long bus trips usually either took students from suburban areas to magnet schools downtown, or students from Southeast Raleigh to outlying schools.

N.C. State University Professor Andy Taylor has been dealing this week with his sons riding the bus for up to an hour to get to Oak Grove Elementary School in Cary on what used to be a 20-minute ride from their home that’s two miles away.

“You’ve got them filling Rube Goldberg routes that are being run and take an incredible amount of time,” Taylor said. “It’s the students who suffer.”

In the case of the Taylors’ route, Snidemiller said, school officials will make changes next week to reduce the ride time to between 40 and 45 minutes.

As in the start of past school years, Snidemiller said, his staff will examine the routes and see what stops can be eliminated and what adjustments can be made to routes.

More choices vs. fewer buses

For some parents, it’s no coincidence that ride times are going up at the same time the choice plan is going into effect. Under the choice plan, families are no longer assigned to a specific school but instead rank where they want to attend from a list of choices.

The school board voted last month to direct staff to develop a plan that would tie addresses to specific schools for the 2013-14 school year.

Molly Eness keeps up with developments in the system and worries that the plethora of choices available will result in poor use of system resources. Her sons, Isaak, 8, and Oskar, 10, face an hourlong bus ride this year to Adams Elementary School, a mile from where they live.

“When this choice program is fully implemented, you’re going to have five buses running past your house,” she said. “They are going to either be empty, or they are going to be running for four hours.”

Snidemiller said the reason for the longer ride times is having fewer buses, not the choice plan.

“Nobody can convince me that the assignment plan added to ride times for the kids,” Snidemiller said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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