August 23, 2014

Wake County tries again to save on busing students with far-reaching changes

Wake County families that still have bitter memories of the 2012 school bus fiasco are about to deal with yet another far-reaching change in the way that their children get to and from school.

Wake County families that still have bitter memories of the 2012 school bus fiasco are about to deal with yet another far-reaching change in the way their children get to and from school.

Wake school administrators have rewritten bus routes – eliminating thousands of stops from last year and dropping some routes entirely. The changes, driven by efforts to shorten bus rides and keep down costs, will mean longer walks to the bus stop for some students.

The new plan could allow North Carolina’s largest school district to handle the influx of new riders without putting more buses on the road.

The opening of the new school year Monday for the majority of Wake’s estimated 156,000 students will show whether school leaders have absorbed the lessons from two years ago, when changes actually made bus service worse.

“This year we’re making significant changes in our routes to make them more efficient,” said David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer. “We’re reducing the number of stops and making buses fuller. We’re not going to know the full impact until we see it in reality.”

The changes aren’t sitting well with some parents. Neter said the school district has received hundreds of requests from parents who want their bus stop changed because they say their new one is unsafe. But he said the reviews have found over 90 percent of the new stops that were investigated were safe, with the requests having been made by parents wanting the convenience of a closer stop.

And Neter said those requests were taking time away from the staff’s ability to handle legitimate requests to see whether stops are safe.

Statewide changes

Other districts have taken similar steps in recent years in response to state cuts that have strained local transportation budgets, according to Derek Graham, section chief for transportation services for the state Department of Public Instruction.

“Our school districts are working very diligently to figure out ways to save money at every single point,” said June Atkinson, the state schools superintendent, “and one way is to continue to look at bus routes to bus stops to see if fuel could be saved by our having not as many stops.

“Wake County is doing that.”

Wake receives $55 million a year from the state for transportation with an additional $20 million coming from local dollars. Without this year’s changes, Neter said, Wake would have had to add new buses to keep up with 1,000 or more extra bus riders, diverting money away from the core mission of educating students.

“We’re trying to contain costs in an environment where we continue to have constrained budgets,” he said.

Wake has added 13,000 bus riders over the past decade. More than 75,000 students are expected to ride the bus this fall a total larger than the entire enrollment of the Guilford County school system, which is the third-largest district in the state.

In 2012, Wake school leaders tried to save money by removing 52 buses from the road with bus routes revised to reflect the changes. Amid problems that saw thousands of students waiting for late buses or buses that didn’t arrive at all, the sidelined vehicles were put back into service. The episode was one of the reasons that former superintendent Tony Tata, now the state’s transportation secretary, lost his job.

A new approach for Wake

The problems led to a reorganization of Wake’s transportation department, which Neter said had been operating on an outdated model that had overworked regional transportation managers drawing up routes in addition to supervising daily operation of dozens of buses. One element of the reorganization was the hiring of a new team in the district’s central office trained in geographic information systems to take over the development of bus routes.

The team went about analyzing the location of bus stops. State Board of Education policy says that bus stops should not be within two-tenths of a mile of each other except for safety reasons. Neter said the new routing team saw that a number of bus stops within two-tenths of a mile of each other could be safely eliminated.

One of the other changes Wake made for this school year was to require new bus riders to register for service at least a month before classes started, to be guaranteed a ride on the first day of classes. School officials said the early deadlines allowed planners to draw up more efficient bus routes and also gave drivers more time to practice them before classes began.

Shaving minutes

The resulting redrawing of routes led to Wake dropping 116 bus routes and 4,000 bus stops. It still leaves 2,136 routes and 21,092 stops.

Neter said each stop eliminated could cut two to three minutes off a bus ride. He said they’ll know how much ride times have been reduced after the traditional-calendar schools open.

“By eliminating the frequency of stops, you’re shaving several minutes off,” he said. “When you look at it across the district, that’s huge.”

Wake school officials say examples of changes include the consolidation of stops within subdivisions. The change, according to the district, means students may now have longer walks to their bus stops. Wake allows bus stops to be as far as three-tenths of a mile from an elementary school child’s home and a half-mile for middle school and high school students.

Bus stop congestion

The consolidation will result in bus stops that are more crowded. Neter said officials will address any crowding issues as they arise.

Last school year, Wake students walked an average of 697 feet to a bus stop, or 0.13 miles. The statewide average was 487 feet.

Trip Hatley, a Wake County school bus driver, said some of the more distant stops he served last year were eliminated from his routes this school year.

“It’s been a lot more compact, but it’s still a pretty long run,” Hatley said of his 45-minute bus route, which takes students home from Holly Grove Middle School in Holly Springs.

School officials say the new routes have gone smoothly so far for the year-round schools. But the true test will begin Monday when the traditional-calendar schools open.

Some parents were surprised by what they learned when they attended school orientation events last week.

Existing bus riders were supposed to automatically be given bus service this year, but Kate Clements learned Wednesday that her daughter wasn’t assigned to a bus at Apex Middle School despite having been a bus rider for six years.

In cases where mistakes happen, students are supposed to get temporary 10-day bus passes while their situation is resolved. Clements is worried she’ll have to make the 40-minute drive from her job in Durham on Monday to take her daughter home from school.

“I’m nervously worried about having to get my child on the first day because she’s stranded at school,” she said.

Sherri Bolton did a double take Friday when she was told at Apex Elementary School that her children were assigned to a new bus at a stop that’s two-tenths of a mile from home instead of one that’s 68 steps from her driveway. She notes how Wake’s website tells parents to send their children to the bus stop closest to their home.

“My problem’s not big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s stupid,” she said.

Parents in Apex are particularly wary of the changes because they experienced some of the worst bus problems in 2012.

“Two years ago, it was chaos,” said Lori Segletes, whose children attend Apex elementary and middle schools. “Last year got a lot better. This year with the changes, I’m sure not everybody will be happy.”

Funding cuts

Wake put the changes in motion before the new state budget cut the district’s transportation funding by $520,000, which Neter says is the equivalent of taking 20 bus drivers off the road. School officials say the state cut makes what they’re doing even more critical.

This year’s $4.6 million statewide cut in school transportation funding is the latest reduction in the past three years.

In 2011, the state cut $10 million for transportation funding and underfunded school bus fuel costs by the equivalent of $17.8 million, according to Graham.

In 2013, the state legislature cut spending for new school buses by $30 million by increasing the point at which buses are replaced from 200,000 miles to 250,000 miles. Graham said that change means 1,200 high-mileage buses, nearly 10 percent of the fleet statewide, are still in service instead of being replaced. He said many of the buses are out of warranty, meaning the districts have to foot repair bills out of their own pockets.

All told, the state kicks in about $400 million a year to school districts to provide bus service to 800,000 students on 13,000 buses, Graham said.

For now, Wake school leaders are urging families to show patience with buses during the start of the new school year.

“More than 75,000 students will ride buses to and from school,” Wake Superintendent Jim Merrill said at last week’s school board meeting. “We ask that parents be patient these first few days as we work with the inevitable surprises of transporting that many people.”

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