09/06/09 — Bus duty

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Bus duty

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 6, 2009 2:00 AM

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School buses leave Charles B. Aycock High School. With the start of the school year and continued budget cuts, Wayne County Public Schools officials are still trying to manage student transportation costs effectively and efficiently.

Bugetary woes are also affecting school transportation, with more students than ever riding the buses this year -- and less money to get them back and forth to school.

"This is a crunch year with close to 224 buses -- it's more than that -- plus 31 activity buses, that's what's on the road every day," said Sprunt Hill, Wayne County Public Schools' assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

An estimated 13,000 students -- of 19,151 enrolled as of Friday -- are being picked up by bus drivers, said Raymond Smith, director of transportation.

'That's 68 percent of our students on buses," Hill said.

In some respects, the numbers are atypical, the officials said. But when coupled with the start of a new school year, it equates to floods of calls and complaints -- about bus routes, delays and an array of other "special situations," Hill said.

The first 10 days of schools, during which officials let the enrollment figures settle in before determining class sizes or in this case, bus routes, are an adjustment for everyone, he said.

"We're doing all we can because our No. 1 goal is to get your child safely, for them to get to school and then home safely," Hill said. "Because of the economy, we have got more riding the buses, fewer buses. ... Someone's got to get on first, someone's get to get on last. We need for parents to be patient with it. We don't want any safety issues."

Transportation has always been a concern, Hill added. Despite trying to work out logistics during the summer months, all it takes is for a family or two to move without notifying the district, or a new family to move in and not register until the first day of school, and the routes are affected.

Add to that other exten- uating circumstances -- custody situations where parents want the child dropped off at one location one week, the other parent's home the next, a mean dog or registered sex offender in the neighborhood -- and emotions start running high.

The district is working to resolve issues, but could use a little help and understanding during the initial days of school, Hill said.

"If someone calls and says, 'There's a mean dog in our neighborhood so we want door stops for all our kids, that's really not a Wayne County Public Schools issue, it's an animal control issue," Smith said. "We get requests because there's crime in the neighborhood. 'We want front door stops because we have a lot of crime in our neighborhood.' Again, that's a domestic issue that Wayne County Public Schools is not equipped to address."

Jeff Lawson, coordinator of the Transportation Infor-mation Management System, or TIMS, has checked out many a complaint.

Unfortunately, he said, buses cannot stop at every home, so officials look first and foremost at safety issues.

"State law does not address the age of a child. It just says we must pass within one mile of each student's residence," Smith said. "So by law, a bus stop can be up to one mile away. In Wayne County, we try to establish a higher level than that.

"Parents must understand that their child is their responsibility until they board the bus. Once they board the bus, WCPS takes responsibility."

Hill said the school system attempts to be sympathetic to parents' concerns.

"We're going to do what we can to help," he said. "We're going to make a concerted effort to try to help, but where do you draw the line?"

Not that it all equates to dollars and cents, but transportation has also been affected by state budget cuts this year, Smith said.

"We have to maintain the buses, making sure they're safe," he said. "The state is asking me to justify every penny that's spent on a bus. Some of the things we have been able to do in the past, we're no longer able to provide because of state requirements to cut back on the level of services. ... We'll have to do more with less, put more students on fewer buses."

"This started last year because of high gas prices, more parents putting their kids on the buses," said Ken Derksen, public information officer for the school system.

Determining the most efficient routes, while delivering children safely to and from school, presents a challenge.

"Our difficulty is in providing the higher level of service," Smith said. "On one hand, you have a mandate from the state to operate as efficiently as possible, cutting out mileage, stopping at entrances of subdivisions. On the other hand, parents demand higher level of service. We have to ask the parents to meet us halfway here."

During the first 10 days of school -- the 10th day will be Tuesday -- all requests and complaints are being gathered and reviewed, Smith said.

"We look at whether it's on a busy thoroughfare, easily accessible, as far as the actual stop, but the changes are primarily to routes," he said.

There are other steps parents can take in the process, Smith said.

"Contact the school, talk to the assistant principal or principal, request a school bus stop form," he said. "The administration then is to go out and physically observe the stop and the request and make a recommendation to the transportation department. ... The transportation department will review the request. If they find it necessary to go out and look at that stop in addition to what the school recommends, we will, but we make the final decision on whether it's approved or denied. At that point, the parent is notified of the decision."

While situations may be handled on a case-by-case basis, not everyone will be happy, and the officials realize that.

Historically, someone will always be displeased because the "buses have always stopped here" and this year stop down the street, Hill said.

That doesn't even touch on other issues of transportation, he said, which don't fall under the jurisdiction of the school system -- student drivers and parents picking up and dropping off their children each day. Those create a myriad of problems as traffic patterns are violated and parking lots are bottle-necked each day.

It's a safety nightmare, the officials say, as teachers and staff are unable to manage parents waving their child over to a car or parking vehicles in areas that are either illegal or where visibility is a problem.

"We try and keep buses and cars separate, but we have very little control over the parents," Hill said.

Derksen said the district works to prepare for all types of problems, but with the start of a new school year, there will always be areas of concern.

"This is stuff we deal with every year in the first 10 days," he said.

For Smith, it's still about safety first.

"From our perspective, we don't have the luxury of only being concerned about one child, we have to be concerned about all the children," he said. "A successful day is to get every child home safely. We want parents to underst and that their child's safety and well-being is our No. 1 goal."