Wake's bus blues

August 30, 2012 

Were the transportation folks with the Wake County school system simply directed to do the impossible? Or with sufficient ingenuity, could they have engineered bus routes that successfully handled more kids – kids given new options to choose their school – with fewer buses?

What’s become painfully clear during the first week of traditional-calendar classes is that the process of getting students to and from school via bus turned into a big fat mess.

Parents whose kids were left standing on corners in the morning, or were still waiting for buses to pick them up at school past 5 p.m., erupted in understandable frustration and alarm. Typically when school begins, some bus-related kinks have to be ironed out as drivers learn their routes and schedules. But by all accounts the kinks in Wake set a new standard for confusion.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Tony Tata stepped up to acknowledge the problems and vow they’d be fixed. That was welcome. However, there’s room to wonder whether the four additional buses Tata said would be put back on the road will get the job done – since the operating fleet lost about 52 buses in a dollar-driven downsizing.

Responsibility for that perhaps ill-considered move has to lie with the school board, which also was in the midst of converting to a new choice-based student assignment plan. Students in the same neighborhood can attend different schools, each served by a different bus. Bus routes are designed by computer these days, but this sounds as if it was enough to give a computer a headache.

Using fewer buses, Wake expected to collect some incentive money for efficiency from the state, as well as to save on its overall transportation costs. Still, the system as of Tuesday had 5,100 more students than last year.

Saving money is important. But transporting students safely and efficiently is even more so. Wake County must field enough buses so that routes are reasonably compact and timely. The price will be cheap if it keeps kids safe and helps them learn.

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