School Bus Update

First let me thank you for your patience! I know there are some concerns about the buses particularly about the length of a couple of the routes  and some students having to be on the bus longer than most of the other students.  I understand that concern. It has been a difficult summer trying to figure out who is planning to ride the bus and considering how to create the best routes  for the most students without all of the information available.  As a result, the bus company created routes (with input from the district) to start the year and they are not perfect. I am actually not sure if there is such a thing as the perfect bus routes but we are listening and trying to consider all of the information that is being brought to our attention.

Last Thursday night,  I reported on the status of the buses to the School Committee.  I let them know the following information which I am glad to share with you.  It might seem like creating bus routes is easy but it actually is quite complex because there are many variables to consider.

When the routes were created, the following things are considered:

  1. The Ridership

Who is going to ride the bus is the biggest driver in the creation of the routes. We set up a registration process that begins in April when we notify people who their child is eligible by distance ( 1.5 miles from home to school) or they live within our safety zones.  Thankfully. we receive many responses before school closes but we often have people who do not register until late in the summer and we are actually still receiving them. Some people assumed that if their child rode the bus  last year, they were automatically registered this year.  This is not the case because you must register every year.  All in all, the routes must be created in early August with the information we have in our system and it is usually incomplete. The information we do have is the list of students who show up in our software program as eligible and , because we have to have a slot for the students who are eligible, they use this list to make the routes.  Since our policy  allows students who live 1.5 miles from school to ride the bus at both schools, they use this list to create the routes. There are often 20-30 students per bus who are eligible to ride the bus which would be a big problem for us if they all decided to ride with only five buses. This is why we started a registration process because we wanted to get a better picture of who actually intends to ride the bus.  It has  helped somewhat but has not been as reliable as we need it to be due to issues with the timing of when the information is actually available.   When we do receive  all of the registrations, these lists are cross referenced in the first couple of weeks of school.  Initially the posted routes include stops that might not be needed but we don’t know that until we see that the eligible rider is actually not going to ride. This might be part of what causes anxiety for parents when they look at the times and see that the route , if all of the stops are needed, is close to an hour when it is unlikely that this will be the case after the first couple of weeks of school. That is why we ask for your patience as we run the routes for the first two weeks.

2. Geographic Areas

The bus company has five buses , four of them doing a single run and one doing a short double run to transport all of the students who want to ride the bus. While there are some obvious areas of town where the bus picks up groups of children, there are other areas where the students are spread out and the bus needs to travel to get them and/or pick them up along the way.  Sometimes these stops might not seem to make sense but it may be the case that a bus that is traveling closest to  that vicinity has to go out of the way to make additional stops which adds time to the route.

The concern about some students being the first on and the last off is legitimate.  While this has happened in years past, we do understand the concern.  The bus company tells me that in other towns this happens because the rule of thumb is that you start the route the farthest away from the school and work your way to the school and in the afternoon, the route starts at the schools and works its way back to the farthest stop.  This practice is why this happens on a couple of routes in Georgetown.

Our ultimate goal with five buses  is to have children ride the bus less than 45 minutes per day and we would like that to be shorter if we can make it so.  While I am not able to promise a change at this time, I am discussing the issue with the bus company to see if this can be rectified without causing complete disruption to everyone on the two buses this affects. If we do not make a change this year, parents have my word that I will  make this a priority to avoid next year when the routes are created because I do understand the concern.  We are hoping that once the routes are finalized with actual riders and their stops, for this year ,  the routes will all get shorter.  Maybe then the  concern about the amount of time students are on the bus for this year might diminish although I understand it doesn’t  fix the argument of fairness to the students who have two longer rides each day.

3. Make the Least Changes

Due to the issues we experienced last year that necessitated multiple changes to the routes, it was decided that for this year we would use the same routes that we had at the end of last year unless there was a reason to change them. While not perfect, our thinking was that parents had made the adjustment and might appreciate not having to adjust to yet another change this year. The route changes at the end of last year had shortened the length of some of the bus runs and students who were getting home after 4:00PM were no longer facing that situation. The amount of students riding the buses was more equal and we heard far fewer complaints from parents. There were a couple of adjustments made this year, but most routes stayed the same.  We are still offering a convenience run as a second run for students who live in the Longview area and some that get dropped off at Perley.  The issue about distance  from school was resolved with this additional bus run which was one of our successes last year.  I think we realize now hearing from many parents that the routes last year were not satisfactory and so the concerns have spilled over into this year as well. As I said, there are a lot of moving parts.  Some have asked me how this would be different if we had another bus.  It definitely would shorten the routes  however, the number of students on the buses would likely decrease to 30-40 ( capacity of 77 students) on a bus if the same number of students rode each bus .  Then the concern about the wisdom of paying for buses that are half full comes into play.  More eligible students might choose to ride the bus but the more students who ride, the more stops would be needed  and the longer the route would need to be.  Then there is the reality of the cost of a sixth bus which is approximately $60,000 which would be tough to come up with in the budget.  If there was a way to use the buses we have and get students home within 45 minutes, transport students on a convenience run that got all students home within 45 minutes and address the issue of first student on and last student off, I think we might have the chance to start off a school year with minimal concern about the buses.  That remains our goal and I am confident we can get there with some improvements to the process.

As we always do after the routes have been run for a couple of weeks, I will be meeting with the bus company, Barry Belanger  and Laura Markarian.  At that meeting, we will be reviewing the numbers of riders because the bus company takes counts for the first few weeks, reviewing the routes and the stops to see if there should be any changes including elimination of stops, changes in times and reassignment of routes, and going over parent concerns that have been raised. I am hoping then that any changes that will be made will shorten time on the bus and we will determine if times need to change on the two buses where children are currently first on and last off the bus.

I know I have said this before but we all appreciate your patience. Please be sure that you are at the bus stop 10 minutes early as right now times are varying because of stop times, traffic and road construction. Please watch the website and look for any correspondence on our automated messaging system if significant changes occur. If you have any questions, please contact Barry Belanger or Laura Markarian in my office  and they will do their best to help you. If you have something you want to discuss with me personally please contact my office at 978-352-5777 or e-mail me at jacobsc@georgetown.k12.ma.us.