UPDATE: Columbia School Board considers bus schedule changes

Thursday, January 24, 2013 | 10:46 a.m. CST; updated 10:29 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 24, 2013

COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board considered two new transportation plans Thursday that feature more time between the starts of schools than previous plans.

"Much of this could change, and it was just for discussion purposes," district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said. "One plan hasn’t moved forward as better than another at this point. There are a lot of variables to discuss."

Middle schools start in the first time slot, or tier, in one new scenario, and elementary schools start first in the other. High schools are in the second tier.

In one plan, elementary would start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m., high school would start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:35 p.m., and middle school would start at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:50 p.m.

In the other plan, middle school would start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:35 p.m., high school would start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:35 p.m., and elementary school would start at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:35 p.m.

Board Vice President Christine King said that so far, she prefers the new plan in which middle school students start first. 

"The reason I thought that was the best from a start time was because our middle school is such that almost all of their activities, both athletic and academic, occur after school," she said later Thursday. "The downside to that is we still need more drivers. It's not about (busing provider) First Student, it's not about the finances; it's all intertwined."

The district is strongly leaning toward switching to a three-tier system from a two-tier system to accommodate the fall 2013 opening of Battle High School and a related realignment of school attendance areas.

The board began researching new transportation systems in September.

A previous proposal to change school start and stop times was met with public opposition when it was discussed at a board meeting Jan. 14. The board decided to explore other options.

King said the board wants to establish a functioning transportation schedule to allow the district options after the First Student contract expires following the 2013-2014 school year.

In the coming year, the board will take up whether the district extends the contract with First Student, contracts with another provider, or takes transportation in house — either by buying buses or leasing them.

"It's much more than purchasing buses," King said. "It's taking over the entire transportation in-house, the drivers, potentially the mechanics."

At Thursday's meeting, the board heard for the first time about challenges First Student sees with scheduling the elementary and high schools consecutively. Because the elementary and high school levels have the most students being bused, the concern is being able to supply rides for all students without adding more buses and drivers.

This conflicts with all plans currently on the table, which have high schools starting in the second of three tiers.

"What I've asked to see is what, exactly, would the routes look like in terms of the times if we did high school, middle school and then elementary, and how late we could start in the morning," King said.

Wayne Gensler, regional vice president of First Student, told the board there are two factors in transportation: time and distance.

"When you don’t give yourself enough time with the distance you have, it becomes a nightmare," Gensler said. "It’ll be the worst nightmare you’ll ever face. You’ll be getting calls night and day."

The latest plans allow more time between each tier. High school and middle school days would be shortened by five minutes, and elementary schools would be 10 minutes shorter, Deputy Superintendent Nick Boren told the board in presenting the plans.

They also would require fewer buses overall because there is more time between each tier, said Colton Davidson, supervisor of facilities and construction services for the district.

Davidson said the most effective way to run a three-tier system is to allow at least 60 minutes between each school start time. This factors in loading and unloading times at schools, which generally takes 12 minutes. The bus drivers would then have 48 minutes to run their routes. 

"We need adequate time between tiers," board member James Whitt said. "I do believe if we make a mistake there, it will be the worst thing we could do. We would be setting ourselves up for major failure."

The district plans several more opportunities for public feedback. A board vote planned for February might be pushed back to March, Baumstark said.

Below is the presentation for an alternative three-tier student transportation plan shown Thursday morning to the Columbia School Board. This draft was presented for discussion purposes and is likely to be extensively revised.


Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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