I went to the Transportation meeting tonight at Aki Kurose. There were a grand total of six members of the public there, not counting a reporter.
Cordell Carter got it off to a poor start in his introductory remarks by saying that the District's budgeting priorities were to "protect the classroom against all else". It was an unnecessary and unconvincing lie. Mr. Carter did nothing useful except introduce Tom Bishop.
Mr. Bishop briefly sketched out the proposed transportation plan and then opened the floor to questions. It was through the questions - I submitted about six of them - that the story came out.
The story, put into a coherent order, goes like this:
Faced with the mind-numbing revenue reductions caused by the ailing economy, the state has drastically cut funding for public K-12 education in every possible way, including the reimbursement for student transportation. The State has adopted - just since January - a new formula for reimbursing Districts for school bus expenses. The old state formula used to pay for each bus, but the new formula pays for each student. Under the new system, Districts maximize their reimbursement by making short trips with very full buses. This new formula also makes it very expensive to make long trips or to run buses half-empty. It makes it crazy expensive to make a long trip with a half-empty bus.
This was a complete change in the way that the state paid for student transportation and the Transportation Department had only a couple weeks from the adoption of the new formula by the state to due date for the Transportation Service Standards. They developed this plan without any community involvement; there was no time. Mr. Bishop, however, is actively seeking community input on how the plan can be improved.
The new Transportation Plan will go into effect with the 2013-2014 school year. There will be a Transitional Plan used in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.
Under the new plan, and during the time of the transitional plan, service to middle and high schools will be just as it is now. Most students living outside the walk zone for their assigned school will be issued an ORCA card. Yellow bus transportation will be provided only as needed: for special needs students and in those locations where the METRO service is inadequate.
Under the new plan, and during the time of the transitional plan, service to Option schools will be just as it is now. There are some students who are getting grandfathered bus service but that will end in two years.
Under the new plan the District will identify a Transporation Zone around each attendance area elementary and K-8 school. This Transporation Zone will be generally be limited by a radius of 1.25 miles from the school. The Transportation Zone will extend beyond that range, as necessary, to include all of the school's attendance area and it will be reduced, as necessary, to remain within the school's middle school service area. Yellow bus transportation will be provided to students living within the school's Transportation Zone but outside the school's walk zone. In no case will any school's Transportation Zone include the entire middle school service area. A couple of the schools in the McClure service area will come closest.
Students with special needs and participating in special programs will continue to get transportation to the school from outside the Transportation Zone. Routes that extend beyond the Transportation Zone will have fewer stops placed further apart. They will be "community stops". The district intends to use schools as these community stops and there will be adult supervision at the schools used as community stops. No student, however, will be assigned to a stop further than a half mile from the student's home, the maximum distance the District thinks a student should walk to a bus stop.
Students living just beyond the Transportation Zone will be assigned to a stop within the Transportation Zone if that stop is within a half mile of the student's home. That extends the practical range of the Transportation Zones to 1.75 miles from the school. In addition, due to the layout of streets, there may be stops outside the zone as the bus travels in an arc around the school.
Some special accomodations will be made for students who were assigned to a school that was in their cluster under the old assignment plan but is not in their middle school service area under their new assignment plan. These accomodations typically involve sharing buses with other schools. Van Asselt students living in the Aki Kurose service area, for example, will ride a bus with students going to Wing Luke. After the bus stops at Wing Luke in the morning it will continue to Van Asselt. Similar accomodations will be made for Gatewood students who will ride on a bus that stops first at West Seattle Elementary, Muir students who will ride a bus that stops first at Hawthorne, and Laurelhurst students who will ride a bus that stops first at Sand Point.
Come 2013, when this new plan is fully implemented, other students living beyond the Transportation Zone for their school will not be provided with yellow bus transportation to school. They may, however, gain access to a bus provided for special program students on a space available basis.
During the coming two years, the transitional period, the district will provide yellow bus transporation to schools from a wider area beyond the Transportation Zone. This service will use community stops. While there will be a wider area served, it may not include the entire Service Area. The routes through these areas will use community stops, primarily other schools.
This reduction in yellow bus service will save the District a net (after reimbursement from the State) $4 million. These savings will start in 2011 and will be greater in 2013.
The Transportation Department has started posting maps with the walk zones, Transportation Zones, and Transitional Transportation Zones for each school. They probably won't finish that work before the end of next week.
Let's make no mistake about it. There are students who now have yellow bus transporation to school and will lose it. The district does not yet know how many. Early estimates included students enrolled in special programs who will continue to get transportation. Better estimates are expected by the end of next week. That is the primary downside to this proposal.
For a lot of families, access to a school requires district-provided transportation. Without transportation they do not effectively have access. The District claims to place a value on equitable access to quality programs and schools. That principle is compromised if transporation is denied.
That said, Mr. Bishop strikes me as sincerely making every effort to find a way to serve as many students as he can within the budgetary contraints. Let him know if you've got a hard case and he may be able to work a solution for you. I believe he will try his best.
There are also a lot of things to like about this proposal. Students living outside the Transportation Zone for their assigned school may be able to catch a bus there from their neighborhood school. They would be able to walk to their neighborhood school with their neighbors, have adult supervision while they wait for the bus, and, upon their return home, since they are dropped at that school, they could use the after-school care at their neighborhood school. That could all be pleasant and convenient.
Crossing guard hours will be increased in readiness for the greater number of students walking to their neighborhood schools - whether they are going to class or to their bus stop.
Since the bus routes will be shorter distances, they will take less time. In fact, they will take so much less time that drivers can complete up to three routes in the morning and afternoon. This reduces the number of drivers and buses needed. Some drivers will be laid off. The drivers who continue, however, will get six to eight hours of daily work instead of the four or five they are working now.
Under the new plan the drivers will so all of their routes in a smaller area so it is more likely that drivers will drive both the morning and afternoon legs of the same routes. In addition, the shorter routes are expected to result in fewer discipline issues on the buses.
A few questions were asked that Mr. Bishop couldn't answer directly. He thought they were worthwhile, however, and I think he'll put the information on the web.
Mr. Carter stepped in at 8:10 to call the meeting to a close. The meeting was scheduled to run until 8:30, so I don't know why Mr. Carter jumped the gun on ending it. He got called on it, and he allowed one more question.