Seventy fewer Wake County school buses are on the road than last school year, and students are walking farther to catch the bus to take longer rides to and from school.
The Wake County school system has taken 10 percent of its bus fleet off the road over the past two years, as staff revised or eliminated hundreds of bus routes and thousands of stops. The reduction in the number of buses is the result of a reorganization of the transportation department that school administrators say has made service more efficient and effective.
“What that’s allowed us to do is focus on our ultimate goal, which is to every day deliver 80,000 students safely to school and on time,” said David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer. “That’s been our No. 1 focus and primary focus for why we’re making the changes.”
Wake is operating 835 school buses this year, compared to 925 buses in the 2013-14 school year and 905 last year.
As Wake operates with fewer buses, the district has encouraged other groups to do more of the transportation of students to after-school programs. The change has caused the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County to dig into its budget this year to begin transporting students for the first time.
Some parents complain the changes made in recent years have come at the cost of inconveniencing families.
“It may be efficient for tax dollars, but they’re not considering the families that are affected by this,” said Stephanie Yinger, a Holly Springs parent who says her daughter’s bus ride has gotten longer this school year.
But even with all the changes, school officials say the new system is working. After getting past the first week of school, 99 percent of morning runs and 97 percent of afternoon runs have been on time, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman.
Administrators also say they’ve gotten fewer complaints about bus service and fewer requests for bus-stop changes.
At the last school board meeting, several board members called bus service at the start of this school year the smoothest it’s been in recent years.
“It has by far and above been the quietest year so far for me so that means things are going well,” board member Susan Evans said at the Sept. 1 meeting. “In terms of transportation in particular, I did not get a single email, not a single email, about a bus being late to pick up or drop off a child or their bus being too crowded.”
While this year’s figures aren’t in yet, data from last school year show Wake’s bus changes have been affecting families.
▪ The average ride time for students increased to 19 minutes in the morning, up three minutes from 2011.
▪ The average distance to the bus stop increased to 722 feet, up 75 feet from 2011.
▪ The percentage of students picked up in front of their home dropped to 9.51 percent compared to 12.15 percent in 2011.
One school board member is worried the push for operational efficiency may be discouraging ridership. School board member Jim Martin says school bus ridership, like other forms of public transportation, should be encouraged.
“We seem to be the only public transportation body that’s trying to diminish ridership instead of trying to increase ridership,” Martin said at a June 16 meeting when staff wanted to make parents wait longer before requesting bus-stop changes.
Neter said the catalyst for the reorganization was the problems at the start of the 2012-13 school year, when the removal of 52 buses from service resulted in thousands of parents wondering if their child’s bus would even come. Wake now has fewer buses on the road than during the 2012-13 school year.
One of the major changes was the hiring of a specially trained eight-person team to take over development of bus routes.
Previously, operations managers in the different transportation districts had developed the routes. Neter said that led to situations such as more than one bus stop placed within one-tenth of a mile. State law says bus stops are to be at least two-tenths of a mile apart unless there are safety issues.
“We had done things that were not demonstrative of effective routing,” Neter said.
The new routing team began making extensive changes last school year that have continued into this year as more stops were centralized within neighborhoods. There are now 1,923 morning bus runs, down 184 from the prior year. There are 39,758 bus stops in the morning, down 3,063 from the 2014-15 school year.
Neter said the routing changes made it possible to operate with fewer buses even as ridership has increased by 1,500 students this year. The reduction in buses also has eliminated the district’s chronic shortage of bus drivers.
Savings of $500,000
The 70-bus reduction this year also means fewer dollars spent on transportation that can go toward the classroom, according to Neter. While final figures won’t be known until the state budget is adopted, school officials say initial estimates are they expect to save more than $500,000 on transportation this year. Wake spends more than $50 million a year on transportation.
But those fewer buses are more crowded, as Neter said they’re filling them up more now.
For the second consecutive school year, Joy Viswanath said he and other Green Hope High School parents in Cary had to lobby to get an extra bus because the one originally sent was too crowded.
“There are a lot of inconveniences because of the bus,” he said.
But Viswanath agrees service now is better than it was during the start of the 2012-13 school year.
As part of the new routing strategy, school administrators began requiring last year that new families register for bus service a month before classes began to be guaranteed a seat on the bus by the first day.
These changes have been made as part of what administrators say is an effort to prioritize bus service for those students required to receive transportation to and from home. Wake now strictly enforces a requirement that parents wait until the 20th day of school to request a new bus stop for non-safety reasons, such as to go to an after-school program.
Club pays own way
With Wake transporting more than 500 students a day to different Boys & Girls Clubs, school officials encouraged the group to provide its own after-school bus service this school year.
The Boys & Girls Clubs responded by purchasing five used school buses.
“These are kids that need a Boys & Girls Club,” said Hugh McLean, vice president of operations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wake County. “If they’re not going to the club, they’re more than likely going to their neighborhoods without role models and positive things to do.”
Neter said the change is better for everyone. He said those students now get bus service to a Boys & Girls Club on the first day of school, while freeing up seats on Wake’s buses. For schools that aren’t serviced by the group’s buses, he said they’ll review requests by parents to have district buses stop at those clubs.
The 20-day waiting period, which ends Sept. 22 for traditional-calendar schools, has drawn complaints from some parents. Administrators say they need to wait 20 school days to let bus routes settle. But Karissa Kramer, a Raleigh parent, said the 20-day wait operates under the antiquated mindset that the majority of students have stay-at-home parents who can provide after-school care on day one.
“I’m just really frustrated,” said Kramer, who plans to request a bus stop to an after-school program. “They truly believe someone is at home. I don’t think that’s the case most of the time. I think the changes they’ve made aren’t working.”
‘Not going to be used’
Administrators had wanted to extend the waiting period to the 35th day of traditional-calendar schools. That would have meant students on all calendars, including those in year-round schools that began in July, would have had to wait until Oct. 12 to request a new bus stop for non-safety reasons.
But after board members raised concerns, the idea was shelved.
“If bus service is not convenient, it’s not going to be used, and we need people to use the yellow bus system,” Martin said in an interview last week. “I don’t think we’ve addressed that and we need to.”
Yinger said the bus changes are creating a hardship for her family. She said rides times have increased 45 minutes each way to Washington Elementary School in Raleigh, with her daughter sometimes getting home as late as 5:40 p.m. The route was combined this year to also pick up Fuller Elementary School students.
“We love the magnet program,” Yinger said. “We love Washington Elementary.
“They’re saying (the routes are) more efficient, but it’s not very efficient for kids.”
T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui