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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


November/December 2012
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Safe deliveries like clockwork
by Linda Dawson

Linda Dawson is IASB director/ editorial services and editor of The  Illinois School Board Journal.

The standard line … especially from Dad or Grandpa … when children complain about walking a few blocks to the neighborhood elementary school is usually: “Why, when I was in school, I walked five miles, uphill both ways.”

While health initiatives may be encouraging some children to walk to school, school buses remain the dominant form of daily transportation for students. According to 2009 statistics from the American School Bus Council, 20 million U.S. students — or 40 percent of the 49.3 million students enrolled Pre-K-12 public schools — were transported by 480,000 school buses for a total of 346.6 million miles each day. To put that in a different perspective, it would take 17.3 million private vehicles, using 3.1 billion gallons of fuel, to get those same students to school.

Those statistics on school busing seem staggering, but actually fewer students are being transported on buses than just a few years ago.

According to the Safe Routes to School initiative, 26 million or 53 percent of 49.1 million students were bused to school during the 2004-05 school year.

Safe Routes, in its national statistics on school transportation, said the percentage of students bused to school has been declining steadily since the mid-1980s when more than 60 percent of students rode the bus.

Some of that decline might be attributed to Safe Routes, which seeks to help schools and districts find ways to encourage students to walk or bike to school if they live within established limits and there are no traffic hazards. But the number of students transported by bus each day from their home to school and back again safely is still significant.

In fact, according to board members and administrators in three of the largest land mass districts in Illinois, getting students to their school safely, economically and on time is their number one transportation goal.

Without those familiar yellow school buses, the daily student commute would be less efficient, less reliable and more costly for their communities.

Here is a closer look at those three Illinois districts, and how they struggle to keep costs down in areas where bus transportation to school is a necessity.

Jasper County CUSD 1

With 462 square miles, Jasper County CUSD 1 (just east of Effingham) is the largest transportation district in the state, according to Dan Cox, who is in his third year as superintendent of the 1,400-student district.

This district’s story is one of trying to do more with less … and getting the job done in a county where relying on parents to get their children to school would be unworkable.

District 1 transports students within Jasper County as well as a few students from parts of four other counties: Effingham, Clay, Richland and Crawford.

“We have people on the fringes of the county,” Cox said, which can mean that some of them work in Effingham, Charleston or other communities. “To have them drive to Newton (where three of the district’s four buildings are located) to bring their kids to school and then get themselves to work, we might have to open buildings at 6 a.m.” And that would be costly as well.

When Fred Huddlestun, board president, was first elected, “we had more buses, several outlying schools still open and a large balance in the transportation fund.”

“Transportation was something that didn’t require a lot of thought or participation from the board,” Huddlestun said, “because it carried itself financially.”

Now transportation costs have become a “matter of great concern” for the board.

“We lost more than $500,000 in revenue the first month I was here,” Cox said, and the district has closed seven schools in the past 10 years. Cox credits the school board with making tough decisions that resulted in the district’s ability to cut the transportation budget by $60,000 while also cutting route times for drivers and students.

“We have made all the adjustments we can make,” Cox said. “We run full buses. We’re the most efficient we can be.”

With the closing of most outlying schools, the junior and senior high schools and an elementary attendance center, as well as the district office, are all located in Newton, which is in the center of the county. Only kindergarteners are bused to a building in Ste. Marie, about 10 miles southeast. That makes the transportation pattern a wheel, with all spokes going to Newton at the hub.

In order to help make bus routes more efficient, the district purchased routing software last year, according to Chris Parr, district transportation director. Previously, routing was a manual process of charting residences and assigning students to buses.

“We give them some challenges because we are such a big district,” Parr said. While the software might not have shaved more miles off the routes, he added, it has really cut the time it takes to figure it out. And it also allows him to track more things … like mileage and fuel consumption.

The district owns 53 buses and four shuttles, has 60 transportation employees (counting drivers, mechanics and transportation secretaries) and runs 24 routes, delivering 77 percent of the district’s students each day. In the past two years, those buses have logged more than a million miles with just one minor fender-bender, Parr said, where a bus slipped a clutch and rolled back into another vehicle.

“It’s all about our kids’ safety. Our parents trust us,” Parr said, adding that all of his drivers and bus chaperones are defibrillator (AED) and CPR certified with first aid certification through the state.

Cox said the district’s bus drivers tend to be older, and they are all well-loved in the community. “We have parents request bus drivers like they do teachers,” he said with a laugh.

Parr called the District 1 transportation program the “face” of the district, because the bus driver is the first face the student sees in the morning and the last impression for the afternoon.

With the large land mass district, luckily, only three routes are in the hour-and-a-quarter range, Parr said. The rest are less than an hour.

On a typical day, he said, the first buses roll out at between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. About half the buses leave from the bus facility in downtown Newton. It takes five minutes to get 21 buses on their way.

The rest of the drivers who live in outlying areas of the county are allowed to park their buses at home and leave from there, Parr said. That saves driving into Newton, picking up the bus and then driving back to the same area of the county to begin their routes.

 “As large as our school district is, it is a given that students must be transported,” Board President Huddlestun said. “Asking the parents to pay for it is not a workable idea when roughly 50 percent of students are classified as low income or eligible for free and reduced lunches.

“If state funds for transporting students are eliminated, we will have to find a way to get the students to school, but at this time, I don’t know what it will be,” he added.

To eliminate bus service for Jasper County CUSD 1 is not an option.

Olympia CUSD 16

For many years, Olympia CUSD 16 held the honor of being Illinois’ largest land mass district. At 377 square miles, it still ranks close to Jasper County CUSD 1. But unlike District 1, Olympia still maintains buildings in outlying communities that surround the junior high/high school complex and administrative office that sit amidst the cornfields southwest of Stanford, the official postal address for the district.

Olympia ’s transportation director, Trent Keller, described the district’s bus routes much like Jasper County: a wheel with the high school complex at the hub and routes that run to all parts of the district like spokes.

District 16 operates 33 buses and transports nearly 1,800 students, traveling more than 4,100 miles each day “at no cost to the student.”

“We view transportation as a service,” said Brad Hutchison, the district’s superintendent who will retire at the end of the year, “with a primary goal each and every day to safely transport students. It is THE most important job we do.”

To cut this important service is unthinkable in this Central Illinois district that lies just west of Bloomington/Normal.

“We’ve heard noise from the state about school districts not having to provide transportation,” said Board President Kevin Frazier. “This is unrealistic for a number of reasons, including work schedules, the inability of parents to provide transportation for their students to and from school, and the fact that school facilities throughout the state are not designed to handle that kind of traffic volume and flow.”

While the junior/senior high school near Stanford has large parking lots, they would be cramped if every high school student, every teacher and every support staff person drove and parked at the school each day.

Realizing this and what it means to have 16-year-olds driving every day to a rural high school campus, many older students drive into an elementary school near them and then ride the bus to the high school. When they return in the afternoon, their cars are where they left them so they can take off for home or after-school jobs, according to Hutchison.

If they do choose to drive to the high school, they pay $40 for a parking pass and receive an assigned spot.

Knowing how those spots are assigned is not school board work, but much of what goes on with a district transportation system is of concern to the board.

“Board members need to have a deep understanding of what is required as we provide service to our students,” Hutchison said, “and they should ask for annual reports on transportation.”

Olympia ’s transportation report for 2011-12 includes the number of full-size and specialty buses (26 and seven, respectively), special education buses (six), spare buses (eight, down one from the year before), regular pupil transportation miles traveled (380,069), extra-curricular and Pre-K miles traveled (66,115) the cost per student regular pupil routes ($580) and the cost per special education student ($2,648).

“ Olympia’s transportation budget is a significant portion (8.5 percent) of its total budget,” said board member Laura Cremeens. “We are spending more than most districts as a relative percent of our budget due to geographical size. We are constantly looking at programs we can use to evaluate bus routes to provide safe, quality transportation in a cost-efficient manner.”

“State funding cuts have put a tremendous burden on our district in having to absorb a much larger amount of this cost,” Board President Frazier added. “To totally eliminate the payments would have an earth-shaking impact. We simply could not absorb the cost.”

According to Keller, the district owns all of its own buses and all drivers are district employees. Total transportation expenses for the school year in 2011-12 were $1,716,128 or about $2.53 per mile driven.

In order to save money, District 16 joined a fuel purchasing consortium through the Regional Office of Education that serves DeWitt, Livingston and McLean counties, he said. The district, which maintains its own storage tanks, runs diesel buses with 2 percent biodiesel added since 2002.

And since 2000, the district has used transportation software that allows them to add locations for students that automatically plugs a student into a route.

But even before tackling the question of routes, Hutchison said, the district had to talk about bell schedules. Those determine what time each route has to begin in order to get students to the proper location at the proper time. High school students begin classes at 8:25 a.m., and elementary at 8 a.m., with breakfast served at 7:45 a.m.

“Our system runs like clockwork because it needs to,” Keller said. “And we put people in place to transport every child as if he or she is their own.”

In fact, Olympia’s bus drivers are considered so important, their pictures are in the yearbook and they all get shirts as a thank you for good service, said the superintendent, who has been with the district for 11 years.

Olympia also treats its employees well in terms of salary, benefits and training. “With 65 percent of our employees living in the district, we’re reinvesting in our communities,” Hutchison said. “We will try running with one less route rather than not giving raises.”

The longest-serving bus driver has been with the district 34 years; the newest has been there two years, with average years of service at 12.

Cremeens said the district gets positive feedback about the way it transports students, its standards and the way it maintains its bus fleet. That’s reflective of the personal “student transportation” handout that each family receives, listing not only the name of the student’s bus driver but phone numbers as well for the driver and the district transportation office.

The handout also lists bus rules for student safety and behavior, what to do in case of inclement weather, the qualifications to be a bus driver and how parents can help.

“Personal attention and communication among the transportation director, bus drivers and parents set Olympia apart,” Frazier said.

McLean County Unit District 5

Just east of Olympia CUSD 16 sits another large district with transportation challenges of its own … partly because it is a high growth district and partly because of its unique configuration.

In the past three years, McLean County Unit District 5 has added three and a half schools and has seen its enrollment rise from 6,010 in 1970 to 13,000 currently. The district transports 11,000 of those students, or nearly 85 percent, by bus daily.

In 1948, when the newly organized district’s board of education first met, it authorized the purchase of three buses and an additional eight buses at the next meeting. The district was transporting just under a third of its 1,900 students.

In 2001, the district opened a new transportation facility to accommodate a fleet of 100 buses. Enrollment for that school year was just more than 10,000 students. The district is now up to 142 buses.

“Unit 5 has grown between 80 and 600 students each year since 1986,” added Gail Ann Briggs, who has been a board member since 1976.

Unlike the sprawling rural districts described above, Unit 5 packs its students into about 220 square miles. But that doesn’t make routes easier because of the geography.

Superintendent Gary Niehaus describes the district as “literally a doughnut with a hole.” The “hole” is filled with Bloomington School District 87. While the bus facility was built on the north side of the district, just off I-55, almost all of the growth has been on the east side.

“We have route run times of maybe 40 minutes,” Niehaus said, “but the bus may run empty for 20 minutes.” In trucker lingo, that’s “dead weight time.”

In order to make the most use of its buses and its route times, the district instituted a two-tier system so that the same bus runs two routes morning and afternoon. Currently, Niehaus said, they’re beginning to implement a three-tiered system in order to decrease the number of buses they have from 142 to 130.

To accomplish those route changes, the district staggered start times and the board went back to more of a neighborhood school concept when it redrew district attendance boundaries. Even with that, some of the neighborhoods can be rather expansive, according to Dayna Brown, assistant to the superintendent, who fields calls regarding what some citizens perceive as “bus irregularities.”

“Someone may call and say, ‘I saw a bus sitting in a Casey’s parking lot,’” she said, “but there’s no point in going back to the bus barn (which may be all the way across town), when it may be most cost effective to wait for the next route in the same area for another school.”

“We’re trying to keep all the rides to less than an hour,” Niehaus said, but unfortunately because of sheer distance, some of the routes … like the one for special education students from Carlock … can be 40 minutes even by car.

Brown also fields questions about why a child is on a bus for 45 minutes when it only takes 30 minutes to get there by car. “Someone has to be the first on the bus,” she said, “and I tell them, ‘Unfortunately, that’s you.’”

 “We have had varying degrees of success in communicating effectively with our publics,” board member Briggs said. “The most confusing issue is about which school district educates students living in their neighborhoods. Bloomington Public School District 87 does not educate all students with Bloomington addresses.

“We meet with real estate brokers, developers and employers so they can better understand our district configuration,” she said, “and our website is another resource.”

So far, Unit 5’s growth in equalized assessed valuation (EAV) has helped to support growing transportation needs for the growing district. But field trips just faced a cut back, Niehaus said, because of a deficit in the education fund … a fund used to reimburse the transportation fund for such trips.

 And then there looms the mile and a half issue. In Illinois, students qualify for district transportation if they live more than a mile and a half from their school … or closer, if their way is considered too hazardous.

“Ninety percent of Prairieland (Elementary School) students live within a half mile of the school,” Niehaus said, “but their parents don’t want the kids to walk because they do not feel it is safe.”

And that, of course, is the mantra from all three districts. It was echoed again by Unit 5 board member Briggs: “The goal is to provide on-time and safe delivery to the intended locations of all students transported by the district.”

Bus driver qualifications

Anyone who wants to transport children to a public, private or religious school, including nursery schools up to grade 12, must have a valid school bus CDL permit from the state. This includes driving a traditional yellow bus or any other approved vehicle owned by the school, used for this purpose on a regularly scheduled route, according to information at http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/drivers/drivers_license/CDL/schoolbus.html#schoolbus.

The Olympia CUSD 16 transportation handout for families includes the following criteria in that district:

• Have a good driving record

• Obtain a school bus commercial driver’s license

• Be at least 21 years of age

• Complete a state-mandated eight-hour school bus safety training course

• Complete a two-hour school bus safety refresher course each calendar year

• Pass an annual physical examination, including drug/alcohol and TB testing

• Obtain yearly reinstatement of a school bus driver permit

• Submit to random drug and alcohol testing throughout the school year

• Bus driver’s permits are only issued for one year and cost $50 if the person already has a valid Illinois driver’s license.

• On the state site, “good driving record” is further defined for new applicants as:

•   Not having been under an order of court supervision or convicted of two or more serious traffic violations in the 12-month period prior to the date of application.

• Not having been convicted of reckless driving, DUI or reckless homicide resulting while operating a motor vehicle within three years of the date of application.

• Not having caused a fatal accident as a result of the unlawful operation of a motor vehicle.

Getting to the game

One issue of increasing concern during cutbacks in transportation dollars are the costs associated with transporting athletes to away games. And if the teams are successful, the costs can become more stressful.

Dan Cox, superintendent of Jasper County CUSD 1, said transportation costs were one of the reasons Newton High School pulled out of the Apollo Conference and joined the Little Illini Conference this year. In Apollo, one of their farthest trips was to Mt. Zion, which is more than two hours away.

McLean County Unit District 5’s two high schools — Normal Community and Normal West — are members of the Big 12 Conference, playing each other as well as nearby Bloomington, two high schools in Decatur, two in Champaign, one in Urbana and Danville High School. Danville is the farthest drive at more than 90 minutes.

Superintendent Gary Niehaus’ concern, however, is more about what happens after the athletic seasons rather than the regular game travel.

“Because we’re growing,” he said, “we’re getting into larger districts when we qualify for state playoffs.” That often means playing teams north of I-80, which makes the trips all more than two hours, even with good   traffic.

Niehaus ’ assistant, Dayna Brown, said the district has changed the way it handles some local games and events.

“We may take them to the event, but they need to find a way home,” she said.

Superintendent Brad Hutchison in Olympia CUSD 16 cited both distance and playoff travel as significant considerations for his rural district. As members of the Corn Belt Conference, their farthest trips would be to Rantoul and Mahomet-Seymour. But when it comes to some other athletic competitions, he said the school has traveled to Joliet for soccer, Orion for wrestling and Greenville for track.

Why have costs risen?

While the number of student riders may be declining nationwide, the cost of student transportation is rising. During the 2004-05 school year, the average cost to get each child transported was $692 a year. In the mid-1980s, the cost was less than $300 per student.

A big expense for operating a school bus is its fuel consumption. According to www.schoolbusdrivers.org, “Fuel costs are the largest variable in a school board’s budget and are now also their greatest concern.”

Before the gas crisis in the 1970s, most school buses ran on gasoline. However, as a response to that crisis, many buses were converted to diesel fuel. But between 1980 and 2011, the cost of diesel fuel rose from 82 cents a gallon to $3.84.

Now districts are looking at or are changing to alternative fuels in order to cut costs, among them: propane, compressed natural gas, methanol, bio-diesels, and diesel-electric and gas-electric hybrids.

Another big expense is salaries for personnel. The national salary average for a school bus driver is $31,434, with a range from $23,066 to $41,823 listed at schoolbusdrivers.org. Illinois is less, with an average of $27,434 and a range from $20,131 to $36,501 with Chicago averages slightly higher.

Driver salaries at both McLean County Unit District 5 and Olympia CUSD 16 are very close to the state average. Jasper County CUSD 1 is about $200 lower.

But drivers’ salaries aren’t the only expense. All three districts in the accompanying article employ transportations directors. And there are also salaries to consider for dispatch secretaries and mechanics, if the district owns its own buses.

In an effort to cut costs, more districts, including Unit 5, are outsourcing their transportation operation. In such cases, the district can retain their own buses and just contract for drivers, or outsource the entire operation.

Unit 5 superintendent Gary Niehaus said other than a projected cost savings of $1.5 million over the next three years, three issues were uppermost in the school board’s decision to retain ownership of their buses but outsource employment of bus drivers: driver retention, absenteeism and new drivers realizing that the job just isn’t for them.

By the time the district trains drivers and coaches them through the licensing procedures, he said, other opportunities for someone with a CDL license can open up that are more lucrative than driving a school bus.

Because of the nature of the job … early morning and late afternoon hours with a long break in between, many bus drivers are part-time employees and tend to be older, including retirees.   “Because they are retired,” Niehaus said, “they often have prior commitments and like to take trips.” Finding replacement drivers when they are absent can be a problem.

And he added , if they are younger, they are looking for an eight-hour job and insurance benefits.

For some, the idea of being a school bus driver may be appealing, Niehaus said, until they get behind the wheel and have 60 or 70 kids behind them in the bus.

“They spend six weeks in training,” he said, “and in the first two weeks they may start to question their decision because of discipline and other issues on the bus.”

For a district to spend time and money on employees who decide that soon that the job is not for them can be very expensive in the long run.

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