Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bus Problems?

I’m trying to figure out how widespread might be the bus problems that are affecting some families at my son’s school. Apparently because of consolidation and elimination of some routes, plus some cranky new software, there seem to be many more complaints of longer bus rides, less safe stops, etc.

Our own story isn’t that horrible I suppose (we have to be at the stop 24 minutes earlier in the morning), but it is annoying and frustrating, especially since it was hard to reach the Transportation Office for weeks, and now they say that there probably isn’t anything to be done. (They are still working through the situations where kids have no bus!) We’ve had the same stop for 4 years, and the bus seemed plenty full in years past. I’m a big fan of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it” philosophy, but maybe that’s just my privilege showing through, because the status quo was working for me.

Clearly it is a difficult and complex job to map out bus routes, and of course no one wants to spend any more District money on busses than necessary. But if, as seems to be the case, there are far more problems this year, I’d like to know hear the specifics. And as always, I have to wonder why we can’t think of more efficient ways to move kids around. Maybe we should move to a small fleet of mini-vans? How to people feel about sliding scale schemes (or FRL based systems) to defray costs?

I would love to hear your stories and ideas.


Anonymous said...

Well, I also have been curious about how widespread bus issues are this year.

My daughter tells me that she has been on time to school only ONCE
since school started!

Yesterday, the bus was 20 minutes late in picking her up in the morning - the driver said they had changed the route again.

I have heard from another parent who spoke with someone in Transportation, that they were having trouble giving the drivers maps because of the new software.
Alternative means of finding and printing maps and routes are everywhere!

Anonymous said...

My son still does not have a bus. There is no way for him to get school. I've only recently gotten him Assigned to a school! And school has been in session for what? 1 month?


Anonymous said...

I'll bite, anon 3:06 - how do you not get assigned to a school for a 3 weeks? Did you just move here?

Re transportation issues - watch the last board meeting on cable or the internet for Ammon McWashington's explanation to the board of the new transportation software implementation. Apparently there problems and then so many people were calling that lines were jammed and others couldn't get in.

They'd reserved a special line for schools to use - but he said the schools gave out the number to parents (probably trying to help) but that line got jammed, too.

The first weeks of transportation for 20,000+ students (including stacking busses on early high school then later middle school and elementary bell times - not to mention the special ed and homeless transportation - some of which is by cabs) is complex enough without doing it on a new system - though you'd hope they tested the crap out of it before going live.

Anonymous said...

I've posted this before, but I am happy to repeat.

My children have went to two neighborhood elementary schools over the years. Both within 2 miles of our home. The school bus picked them up at 7:54 for some years and 7:56 the other years, for a school start time of 9:15AM. The bus snaked from Meadowbrook to Bryant, View Ridge, and Ravenna before dropping my kids off at Wedgwood. A one hour ride. Why?

For middle school my oldest went to Salmon Bay, with a scheduled one hour commute each way. Unfortunately the bus ride took an hour and a half each way, every day. He was on time to school only a handful of times the entire year! I complained constantly to transportation, and heard the following.

We are very shorthanded. Don't have enough drivers.

All city draw schools just have longer commutes

It's the parents fault because man y of them don't use the bus, but the bus still has to stop at those stops.

My neighbors son goes to Eckstein. He is 12 years old. He has to cross Lake City Way to catch his bus, with all of the vagrants, in the dark at 720AM. Outrageous.

Has it always been this way?

Anonymous said...

my guess is that when choice is restricted, and should regional and all-city draws ever be limited, the transportation situation will improve significantly.

But in the meantime, it's true - they have to plan the routes for all of the people who are eligible for transportation (imagine the furor if they didn't) and if someone doesn't officially opt out (and many don't, keeping it as a fallback), you now have a route designed to pick up nonexistent children - who might live anywhere between 1 mile and the cluster boundary (imagine the permutations).

And it's not like one of us mapquesting something to figure out the most direct route from our house to the school - in addition to picking up random kids on this block and that all over the cluster (or region, or city) who happen to need to get to school X by 9:15, they have to comply with various safety and performance requirements - can't let kids off on an arterial, on the wrong side of the street from their house, etc.

Pretty soon you've mapped some very circuitous route that takes a long time to run - and if the high school or middle school route the driver ran before is late, well, the elementary run is late, too.

And the state basically funds about half the cost ($26MM/year - and probably doesn't feel too bad about it given Seattle's choice plan, which adds to the expense and the complexity).

Who should pay for the rest of it?Should dollars come out of dollars spent in the classroom to get more drivers, more routes?

It's illuminating to spend time in the transportation office and see them field all of the calls, manage all of the routes, drivers, buses, dollars, etc -

Anonymous said...

There is absolutely no excuse that justifies a 3 hour round trip commute for a child. None. Period.

Or a two hour round trip commute to a school that is 2 miles away from ones home.

Doesn't this just sound wrong to you??? How can we justify this??

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I guess someone could say "no excuse, none, period", but I would still ask...who should pay for the many more buses and drivers it would take to get every child to whatever school his family has chosen, within a time frame they think is reasonable?

Or what should we give up that we're now getting?

And can we justify to Olympia and surrounding districts that we're spending multi-millions on getting kids here there and everywhere, but we need more money for basic education?

One of the elements that makes the current extent of choice even more interesting (and more a drain on the system than a less extensive plan would be)is that many people choose an elementary school because it's over a mile away and thus provides eligibility for transportation (more time for parents to work).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking an option that the district has given to you - but it helps explain why we are busing kids from once side of a cluster to the other, inching through neighborhoods on 1 hour bus rides.

One can't have everything. If you have Seattle's degree of choice, Seattle's funding constraints, and Seattle's academic needs, you can't realistically expect money to suddenly appear (or be pulled from somewhere else) so everyone's child can get to the school they want in the time they expect.

Anonymous said...

anonymous at 946PM here again.

I am a fan of limited choice. I think families should have options. I am not a fan of long bus routes. Therefore my belief is that if you choose a school that is not your reference school, you provide your own transportation. I realize that this may not be equitable to everyone, but something has to give. It is outrageous to expect a child to ride a bus 3 hours round trip every day. Outrageous. We pulled our kid out of Salmon Bay (all city draw school) for this very reason. We didn't want the commute on the bus, and we didn't want to drive him across town either. So he is now happily in a neighborhood school.

As for the comment that people choose a school just far enough away from home to get transportation, I think this is far and wide a rare exception. I'm not saying it has never happened, but I venture to say it is rare. I do not know one single parent who has done this and we have been in 4 different schools over the past 7 years.

If Seattle feels limited choice and limited transportation is inequitable, and they choose to continue to offer full choice, then buses will HAVE to run efficiently. That means no hour long commutes. It means adding buses, and drivers and not penalizing our children with outrageous bus rides. Something else will have to be cut.

Anonymous said...

I would venture to guess that GLAD WE WALK lives in a neighborhood with a high performing school that he/she is very satisfied with. If you lived in a neighborhood with a low performing, under enrolled school you might think a bit differently.

Charlie Mas said...

There was a story about this topic in the Times. Here's a link.

Anonymous said...

Is there a link to a site that outlines the rules transportation is subject to?

I've been surprised at the difference between what streets kids are expected to cross when they walk to school vs. when they walk to a bus. I've seen lots of buses struggling to negotiate little crowded side streets (and traffic circles) and wondered why they don't just stick to arterials, especially since kids are expected to cross those same streets to walk to school.

Who makes the rules: local, state, federal?

Also, how do you opt out of busing (i.e., tell them your kid won't be on that corner)? I looked at the notice they sent us and it doesn't even ask us to call or email them if we're not using it (we are about half the time). Maybe they should include a self addressed stamped post card if they want to be notified.

Charlie Mas said...

I think these two links will prove most helpful:
Service Standards

Reference Guide

Anonymous said...

From the 'service standards' Charlie cites above:

"Bus stops will be located on arterial or primary access residential streets only." so why do they keep getting stuck on traffic circles? What exactly is a "primary access residential street?"

"Elementary students will not be assigned to bus stops which require them to cross arterial status streets which are contrary to the established recommended walkways for adjacent reference area schools." Do you all find this to be true?

"Walking distance to bus stops will be 7 blocks or less for elementary school students where feasible." So why does a John Stanford bus come (past a traffic circle) to pick up a nine year old 1 1/2 blocks from an arterial and then drive back to that arterial without picking up anyone else? I don't mean to pick on JSIS, it just must take an extra three minutes: that translates into money.

I don't see any information on either site that tells a parent how to inform the transportation office that they won't be using the bus.

Another parent I know says she thinks she did get a letter from the District with that message, but I haven't seen it. Maybe because my kids ride on a space available basis--so they will just stop picking them up if the other kids at the stop tell them they don't need service? Maybe I will get the letter later?

By the way Johnny, our bus has picked up within five minutes of the schedule since the second week of school (We're near the beginning of the route), but gets to school about five minutes late for the 8th grader (4th grader is on time, school is K-8, we live in the north end). It has been within ten minutes of schedule dropping off since the second week of school. I am thrilled to have busing at all.

Anonymous said...

maureen, are you trying to tell them that you won't ride ever, or are you looking for a day-to-day method of telling them you're not riding? I think the former is possible but the latter is not -

I thought the letter was supposed to tell you how to opt out - but I've actually never seen one as the one we receive just says "you're not eligible".

to anon @9:19, tis true - we are in a neighborhood with a hi-po school but I'll tell you, it wasn't always so, even when we came for kindergarten.

It used to be one of the last-resort schools in the north end, and it was something of a gamble to enroll there - but I got a good vibe from a teacher at the kindergarten fair and from the principal at the k tour, and it's worked out - in part from the sheer serendipity of a lot of other parents taking a similar gamble and finding much fellow-feeling. Thankfully many had a natural reflex to pitch in.

It's been a nice 5 years - much due to the strong principal put in place by Joseph Olschefke. She made many things happen, notably drawing teachers who also got the good vibe.

Based on my experience, SPS would do well to invest first and foremost in principals - search, development, and support. Not that teachers aren't important, but a good principal can make sure they're found and likewise developed and supported - and can feel part of something they don't have to carry alone.

Would say to people who have doubts about their neighborhood elementary school, make a visit, meet the principal, and take a second look. Seems like there are many strong principals these days.

Don't take the real estate agent's assessment or the conventional wisdom on your neighborhood school - or even the WASL scores - it's all principals and teachers.