08/23/12 — School bus changes aimed at improving service

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School bus changes aimed at improving service

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 23, 2012 1:46 PM

Getting the county's yellow buses safe and ready to roll in time for the start of school is just one of the tasks of the Wayne County Public Schools' transportation department, says director Raymond Smith.

His staff also is responsible for hiring bus drivers and streamlining routes for the 208-bus fleet.

And despite all the efforts preparing for the school year, which officially kicks off Monday, there is always a rash of calls during those first few days of classes -- complaints about late buses, requests for route changes.

"A lot of times parents want changes, (but) they're not necessarily safety-related," Smith said.

This is nothing new, he noted, as his department deals with what he calls "preference over efficiency."

"They think in terms of how transportation will accommodate my child," he said. "But we have to look at it legally and the discussions have to be applicable district-wide and not just for this child."

Preparing bus routes are like a moving target. There are guidelines school districts must follow, ranging from dealing with special needs children to where to add a bus stop. While the summer months are spent on bus maintenance, a computer program is constantly updated -- high school graduates are removed, new kindergarten bus riders are added, as are those moving into or out of district.

Not to mention population shifts around the county, Smith noted. Schools in the northern end of the county, he said, are "bursting at the seams."

"And of course, we haven't moved the district lines so we have to move the buses to accommodate those population shifts," he said.

Other constraints are imposed, he added. Bus stops cannot be closer than two-tenths of a mile apart and state law dictates that a bus stop must be made within at least a mile of any child's home.

"Now, do we have any kids in Wayne County walking an entire mile to a bus stop? None," said Smith. "But that law says that we have to have that much leverage. The law also says students who live beyond 1.5 miles beyond the school that they attend are eligible for transportation.

"So, what does that mean for those that live within 1.5 miles? We don't make students who live within the 1.5-mile radius walk to school, unless there are sidewalks and it's a safe walk to school."

The district is in the process of introducing several changes this year, including combining duties and assigning five district supervisors responsible for bus drivers and developing routes for their schools.

Historically, district policy dictates that no changes will be made to bus stops in the first 10 days of schools, the benchmark used by the state to determine school enrollments and assignment of teachers.

"We still look at requests for changes," Smith noted. "We look at the location of the stops -- is it in a curve? Is it in a blind spot?"

Issues unrelated to safety -- or at least out of the district's domain -- should be addressed differently. Concerns about dogs? Call animal control. Live in a high crime area? Contact the police.

"What we need parents to understand is that their child's safety and well-being is their responsibility until the child boards a WCPS bus," Smith said. "At that point, we assume full responsibility for their safety. We do not own the bus stop. The bus stops are the state right of way. Therefore, if there's something going on at a bus stop, they need to contact law enforcement. We don't have police power or police personnel.

"I think it's an issue of understanding what the school system's limitations are and where our responsibility begins and theirs ends."

To improve efficiency, the district is moving toward a three-tiered delivery of services. Basically, that means the school system will use the same buses at more schools. It is responsive to several issues -- the move of several area high schools into a different athletic conference, resulting in change of bell times, as well as responding to the bus driver shortage.

"Bus drivers will have longer routes in more hours," Smith explained. "It makes it more advantageous for them."

Having a driver shortage often produced the need for "double-routing," sending drivers back out to pick up students for a route where there was no driver.

"Every county around us, including Johnston is required to have a CDL (commercial driver's license) for their bus drivers," Smith said. "All of their classified staff are required to have a CDL. They don't experience bus driver shortages. However, Wayne County does not require CDL of our classified staff or any staff for that matter. Hence, we have a difficult time."

Issues like the economy may mean even more changes in the future, Smith said, hinting at several being bandied about already -- students in areas like Central Heights could be asked to walk to school since sidewalks are being constructed at Eastern Wayne Middle School; multiple grades may be picked up on bus runs.

"There's going to be fewer stops, we're going to stop at the entrances of subdivisions as opposed to going in them," he said. "More community-based stops, students will be asked to walk a little bit further than they have in the past, especially at middle and high school levels.

"This year's transportation system will look very much like last year's, with the exception of the district supervisors now being responsible for school bus drivers."

Information on bus routes is distributed to teachers and handed out to parents this week at open house.

"Those times are estimated," pointed out Lee Ann Beasley, district supervisor for the Southern Wayne and Grantham areas. "We try to tell people to give it 15 to 20 minutes before or after. They need to be prepared the first few days of school."