COLUMBIA — The wheels on the bus will still go round and round in Columbia. But soon, they may not be going all through the town.
Members of Columbia Public Schools' transportation committee are considering recommending that the district crack down on young riders who do not qualify for school bus service.
“We currently have a policy for the eligibility for riders, but we’re not necessarily consistent with enforcing that policy,” Christine King, a member of the committee and the Columbia School Board, said at a transportation committee meeting last week. “Moving forward, we need to ask ourselves, does a recommendation need to be made to change that?”
The district’s policy states that kindergarten through seventh-grade students who live one mile or more from their school and eighth- through 12th-graders who live two miles or more away from their school are eligible for bus service.
Some students who don’t fit that criteria, however, are riding the bus.
Parents of these students have the option to contact First Student, the district’s bus service company, and pay $148.08 per semester for their child to ride the bus. But some of these parents are not paying, the committee said at its Nov. 1 meeting.
David Wilson, transportation coordinator for the district, said in an interview that the issue came to his attention in the summer when he was told some buses were reaching capacity when they weren't supposed to be.
Wilson wouldn't speculate as to how these buses were filling up, but he said it became apparent that enforcement of the district's bus service policy needed to be reviewed.
Nick Boren, deputy superintendent and transportation committee member, said at the meeting that the number of ineligible students using district bus service is about 300. He said the committee expects to have more accurate numbers soon by reviewing each rider's situation.
Regardless of the total number of ineligible riders using bus service, limiting these riders could save the district both time and money, Wilson said at the meeting.
“We have at least 11 routes that would be eliminated if students that don’t fit the criteria didn’t ride the bus,” Denise Apperson, president of First Student, said.
Transportation expenses cost the district about $8 million per year. The district is eligible for state reimbursement of up to 75 percent of its transportation costs, excluding any extracurricular bus services. Because of a large drop in state funding this year, however, the district will be reimbursed for only about 21 percent, Boren said.
"And while transportation is absolutely an essential part of public education, everyone here should be aware, the more you spend on transportation, the less you spend on education,” Wilson said.
One way for the district to eliminate costs is to keep those students who are not eligible for bus service from riding the bus.
“The public has a perception that, ‘Because I live inside a mile and I cross dangerous roads, then I should be picked up,’” King said. “We have been friendly about doing that and making exceptions, but we are here to re-examine that.”
Wilson, who has worked with the district for less than a year, said the lack of enforcement of the policy has probably "occurred over a number of years" and is a result of some "exceptions and oversights."
King said at the meeting that exceptions have been made for students who encounter "hazardous situations" on their way to school. This includes some students who cross busy roads or walk through unsafe neighborhoods.
Wilson said eliminating some of the subjectivity from the current policy or creating a new, more specific policy could help everyone involved.
“We would like it to be as straightforward as possible," Wilson said. "Otherwise, it creates a difficult situation."
“If we decided to strictly adhere to our current policy, that’s fine, but the issue comes if we’re not following the policy,” King said. “If that’s the case, we need to change the policy.”
New routes when boundaries change
The committee also has been charged with the task of overhauling the district’s bus route system in anticipation of the opening of Battle High School in northeast Columbia and the district’s transition to intermediate schools in 2013.
One possible solution offered by Wilson is to turn the district’s two-tier bell system into a three-tier bell system. A three-tier system would spread out the times that the high schools, intermediate schools and elementary schools all begin and end. This would mean having fewer bus drivers drive more routes.
Columbia Public Schools and First Student currently roll 155 buses off the lot every day, covering more than 300 routes.
Switching to the three-tier system could save the district an estimated $300,000 to $600,000 by requiring fewer buses and thus less fuel and fewer drivers, Wilson said.
The three-tier system would also theoretically allow bus drivers the time necessary to more successfully fulfill the other responsibilities of their job, Wilson said. That would include giving drivers time to discuss safety issues with the student riders, inspect the bus for any potential mechanical issues, manage disruptive behavior and check the bus for lost items and sleeping children.
“I would support going from a two-tier schedule to a three-tier schedule," Apperson said. “I know that’s going be more attractive for drivers to stay with us.”
Losing trained drivers has been an issue for First Student and the district.
“We lose drivers a lot because if they have to support a family, they have to work nights and weekends if they want to work 40 hours. That’s hard,” Apperson said.
But King made it clear that the committee cannot make many decisions about the bus routes just yet.
“We can’t do anything in regards to 2013 until boundaries are chosen,” King said in reference to the district’s realignment process. “Eligibility will be our focus.”
The school board is scheduled to select new boundaries early next year.
The committee meets at 4:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month in the District Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.