Monday, November 07, 2011

Transportation Stories

The Times had a story about the district's transportation issues.  As with any change, there are growing pains.

Calls to the district's transportation complaint hotline increased by 16 percent — from 9,500 to 11,000 — in the first two weeks of the school year, Bishop said.

The percent of district students using the bus service decreased by half a percent this year, according to an analysis of numbers recently released by the district.

It's just one of those things," School Board member Peter Maier said. "If I have a choice between putting money into the classroom and putting money into transportation, I would prefer to put money into the classroom, because they're not learning on the bus."

But Duggan Harman, the district's executive director of finance, said he is concerned that the projected $4 million in savings may not be reached. His office is analyzing the issue, with a report expected next month.

Remember when I said the district loves to tout "savings" but we rarely see evidence of this?  Well, at least Mr. Harman is giving us early warning.

While that is a classic - what, me worry? - line from Maier, there was an interesting comment from someone who said they were an SPS driver:

Why don’t you read the handbook you gave us that states the part: *the bus environment is an extension of the classroom.
Funniest line from a Lowell parent (that received many comments):

"It just seems inhumane to me to have an 8-year-old standing outside for 15 minutes."

I do agree with one comment that said if the district expects the families to get their students to school on-time, the district should aim for the same.  I am a little confused at this point about chronic late buses.  

From the Magnolia Voice blog,  it appears the district had an opportunity to apply for a state Department of Ecology that would add technology that would reduce diesel emissions on buses.  Eight state districts are receiving this grant money.   From the Magnolia Voice:

Over the past 10 years, the DOE has provided close to $30 million to help school districts add emission-reduction technology. With the new devices, the DOE is estimating that each bus will use on average 125 fewer gallons of gas per year. 

Apparently Tom Bishop in Transportation didn't know about this grant until a week before it was due.  There may be another round of funding.  The district says that they will convert 15% of its buses to cleaner burning propane.

Just as Mark Teoh missed a deadline on renewing the MAP contract (and oddly, it still hasn't been done due to Steve Sundquist pulling it off the Board agenda last week), I wonder about the Grants department not monitoring and helping other departments know about opportunities and deadlines.


StopTFA said...

The "Grants Department" is like 1.4 FTE now. Why spend money on staff to pursue bonafide grant oppotunities when all it takes is Susan Enfield sweetly asking Normie for private monies for crap like TFA?

dan dempsey said...

Well since as of Nov. 1 ... Dr. Enfield had not even submitted two TFA applications authorized on 9-21, ... it is not too hard to believe that deadlines are missed. The Superintendent has set an example.

Maureen said...

Re DOEcology grant to cut bus emissions, not sure if it makes sense for SPS to pursue it since we don't own our own buses.

I really wish that the last line of that Lowell mom's quote had not been included. I think it undercut her whole point. (Obviously, it would be more inhumane to keep a kid INSIDE for 24 hours a day.)

In this whole discussion, I keep wondering, what do well-run medium size urban districts do about transportation? From a quick look, Boston's looks similar to ours (including transportaion to 'pilot' schools and 'innovation' schools.)

Anonymous said...

Technology & cameras made a huge difference for West Seattle drivers during the viaduct shutdown.

I'd love it if our bus drivers Twittered us when they are delayed or running late.

I think many impacts of reduced service could be offset by the smart use of technology. WSDWG

Lori said...

I *think* that the buses have GPS installed, so in theory, we could track their location in real time, if the district allowed it. (I think this because one day last year, our bus was 2 hours late arriving home, and the district said during that wait that the GPS had not yet been installed on that particular bus, so they couldn't tell us where it was or how much longer it would be!)

Given that our bus is still around 10-15 minutes late each day due to being a third tier route, this would be a huge help. It takes me about 10 minutes to walk to the community stop, then I wait around another 10-15 minutes for the bus. But, if I knew exactly when the bus arrived at school, I could plan my trek to the stop accordingly. Since I run a small business that bills time in 15-minute increments, I could actually use those extra minutes productively each day.

I don't see why the district couldn't do something like this to help parents plan. If they can't get the buses there when scheduled, and if they won't change the schedule to reflect the actual arrival times, they least they can do is give us a way to know where the bus is in real time.

Eric B said...

There are some significant security issues with releasing school bus locations publicly. I don't think people are worried about terrorists, but there are real concerns about people knowing where the children are (eg parent who does not have custody of the child). Our elementary had to stop posting class lists because of this issue.

a reader said...

They do indeed have the ability to know where a bus is at any given moment - but seriously, do you think drivers etc have the time to "tweet" you where they are? This is the real world - drivers are already dealing with a complex set of problems - student behavior/safety being paramount.

The fault in this whole new system is NOT the drivers - many of whom are feeling extremely stressed by trying to meet the unrealistic schedule they've been given. The problem is the "new" plan itself - which was created with nearly zero line staff input - input that predicted many of the issues experienced this year. If only leadership gave a damn.

Josh Hayes said...

While I use an incredibly dumb cell phone, I understand that "smart" phones can generally run an app called something like "next bus", which tells you when the specified bus route is expected to stop at your location, based on its GPS output. You don't know exactly where the bus is, only when it'll show up. Seems to me this would be useful for a lot of the worried parents, wouldn't it? How hard would it be to run this from the SPS transportation side (as Metro and Sound Transit already do)?

Dorothy Neville said...

Josh, OneBusAway is wonderful, but was written by a UW CS grad student who has since moved. There's a small budget to maintain it for Metro, but no way is there funds to duplicate it for school buses.

I suspect Eric is spot on, that privacy issues would keep the GPS of school buses from being broadcast.

While the drivers should NOT be tweeting, perhaps central transportation office can be monitoring (either GPS or by radio contact with drivers who are predicting themselves to be late) and tweeting. That might be the right balance between getting good information to parents and avoiding giving too much information which could be a privacy thing.

Anonymous said...

This would be a great feature, Josh.

I see two problems, however.

One the buses would have to fitted with a system provide this information. Incidentally, Metro buses aren't actually fitted with GPS, just radio transmitters, which are somewhat inaccurate, and when the bus goes off the route ( snow? ) the radio transmitters are useless. Metro has been promising GPS for years, but has not delivered.

Second, Metro doesn't actually provide or maintain apps for using this data. They provide a data feed and third parties have used this to build apps.

Maybe some enterprising parent would build an app if the district could provide the information, but clearly the customer base for such an app is pretty small.

Finally, if the district can't manage to move their enrollment system off a VAX until 2010, why would we think they would be capable of creating a publically accessible bus tracking system, particularly when they are looking at making changes to the bus system which reduce their costs while increasing parent costs?

Bus buddy

Dorothy Neville said...

Completely out of the box and probably impossible to implement solution to the bus and start time issue: attract more Part Time drivers. My niece is a school bus driver on the East Coast. She found the job when her oldest child started kindergarten. The district markets the jobs to MOMS (and perhaps Dads) as a part time job that aligns completely with school schedules -- you have off when your child does, including snow days. And they have seat belts and encourage drivers to bring their younger children on the route -- so no day care costs. (Seat belts allow for infant and child car seats for these younger kids.)

One main reason for our nutty three tier schedule is that supposedly it is too hard to attract and maintain part time drivers. What if we made the job attractive to part time workers?

Anonymous said...

It seemed like the NSAP and change of transportation policy should have resulted in a much more significant reduction in bus usage than .5%. Why such a small impact?


Eric B said...

Our problem is also complicated because SPS has outsourced transportation to First Student, so they are less able to drive testing of innovative approaches. If First Student doesn't see a value in testing a different approach, then there's no way to force them to test it.

And Peter Maier really didn't do himself any favors with that quote.

Anonymous said...

My child is at a third tier school and though the bus is on time in the AM, it is frequently late in the afternoon.

From what my child says, they sometimes wait outside for 10-15 minutes until it shows up to pick them up. It's simply not getting to school on time for pick-up.

While I won't go as far as saying it's "inhumane," it does seem like the system needs tweeking. If the bus can't consistently make it to school on time, they need to add another bus or rework the routes.

-stuck in the third tier

Po3 said...

MAPS contract. Debell is pushing back and will not vote to approve contract until his questions are resolved.
1) Worth testing K and 9th (with EOC exams)?
2)Value of test v. lost instruction time (1 day at the current 3x year testing)?
3)Resources used for test. Big problem at the HS level when all the computers are used for testing and students can't use for school work?
4) Can we pull back on this test and save some $$$?

Staff working on; presentation 11/16 and hopefully we will see a reduction in testing discrict-wide. (Because I think DeBell is right on!)

dj said...

Stuck in the third tier, I agree that I would rather have a predictable slightly later time than an unpredictable time where the bus is generally but not always late. Part of the problem at my children's stops is that the bus is almost always late, except for the once every three weeks when it is not, so most days, you as a parent are out there waiting for 10-15 minutes. That doesn't sound so bad until you consider how many of us have other kids who we have to take out there to wait with us, often in inclement weather. This wasn't an issue when the bus dropped kids right by my house, as opposed to across an arterial from where we live.

Chris S. said...

Does anyone know of any data to support Tom Bishop's assertion that most of the kids on busses are "not attending their neighborhood school?"

Isn't this year 2 of NSAP? So the "choice/option" bit can't be applied to all 2-5th graders who had some sort of choice but did not necessarily include access to their 2011 neighborhood school.

The Real Arnold said...

@Eric B: "Our problem is also complicated because SPS has outsourced transportation to First Student, so they are less able to drive testing of innovative approaches."

That's exactly what I was going to say - it was my understanding that the buses are part of a contracted fleet. They are not owned or maintained (directly) by the district. If the company that owns that buses doesn't see value in obtaining the grant funds to upgrade it's fleet, then maybe the district should look for a different contractor.

ArchStanton said...

Same Stuff, Different Day... this thread is giving me PTSD flashbacks.

When my oldest was in first grade and began taking the bus halfway across town, we had a few frustrating incidents where we were waiting for the bus or were unsure if she had even gotten on the bus. We emailed Mr. Bishop and several administrators to express our frustration and suggest solutions only to receive silence or "yeah, sorry 'bout that" in return.

We were finally driven to find our own solution after I waited at a stop for nearly two hours on a dark, rainy evening with a fussy one year old. Fortunately, I was in car, but I could have easily been walking. I just couldn't leave because the bus might show up at any time, but I couldn't find out where it was, either.

We decided to get our first grader a cell phone with GPS - something we never imagined we'd need to do. It was worth it for the piece of mind. Even if she didn't think to call (or hadn't yet figured out how to) to say that she missed the bus or that the bus was late; we could look online and see approximately where she was and figure out if she had missed the bus or estimate how far from her stop she was. We could also call her to confirm, if we needed to.

It was reasonably priced, and easy to configure to block features and limit use to specific numbers and times, but it was yet another cost that we absorbed due to the unpredictability of SPS and Transportation.

So; while it's great to press transportation to solve it's problems, I recommend you save yourselves a few grey hairs and find a solution that works for you until they do.

seattle taxpayer said...

Kids who are outside the NSAP line can still ride the bus. They just have to get to a stop within the boundary. That's still a lot of kids but it should be completely over in 4 years. Watch for some site based programs to go. They must be very expensive, per student served. Do they still delivery Spectrum elementary kids anywhere in their Cluster?

Jan said...
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Jan said...

Melissa -- for what little it is worth, there is a difference between some "deadlines" and others, I think. In the case of MAP -- we are the client; we are paying the money. If MAP doesn't want to wait (they will) or doesn't want the huge amounts we pay them for their questionable (for what we use it for) test -- well, I suppose they can go away, or change the price -- but they DO want it, so they won't. That doesn't mean we should be totally cavalier about timing, but the "buyer" of goods (unless they are in short supply) tends to call the shots on timing.

The opposite is true with grants, federal deadlines for getting funds, etc. In those cases, the OTHER party holds the money -- and we don't get it (or maybe don't get it) unless we follow whatever rules they set up for giving away their money. If I were District management, I would take as much time as I needed to vet my requirements for what I wanted before SPENDING my money -- but would be darn sure that I hit the deadlines in asking someone else to spend their money on (or give their money to) me.

Jan said...

Thoughts on bus technology: I agree with Arch. For the short term, the thing to might be to outfit your child with a GPS enabled phone.
But on the technology piece -- while I agree that they don't want the public at large to know where every bus is, for security reasons, and the driver is too busy to twitter -- how hard would it be, really, to outfit each bus with a "bus phone" and find an older child responsible enough to tweet locations on late days. We let these kids handle safety patrol at their schools. Parents who need the info could sign onto the twitter feeds. (Frankly, a group of bus families could do this on their own, without any District involvement, I suppose, but it might be nice to make it available for all buses).

On Maier: I agree with whoever (Eric B?) noted that Maier is not doing himself any favors -- especially among those who follow board decisions enough to know that he has voted for almost every (I can't think of a no vote, but maybe I am misremembering) single expensive proposal ever made by MGJ or Dr. E to divert money AWAY from students (coaches, NTN contract, MAP contracts, expensive Discovery Math consumables, budgets with 100+ coaches to enforce fidelity of implementation, school closings, etc.).

And finally Po3: I can't tell whether you have hard proof, or are merely infering from behavior -- but boy, boy, boy do I hope you are right. This is EXACTLY what needs to be done -- some real analysis on where (and how often) MAP testing might be worth what we are paying -- and where it is NOT -- given how many things that we KNOW are worthwhile are being cut or underfunded. Teoh's presentation was so weak, at least in my opinion. And then -- when they extended the deadline -- I thought -- could it be? Are they actually demanding real analysis? It almost makes me giddy!

Anonymous said...

My son is also on a third tier bus and he waits from 5 to 15 minutes every day for the bus to get to his school to pick up kids. Not surprisingly, this means his bus is 10-25 minutes late each day, so my younger daughter and I get to wait outside each afternoon/night. Fun. Repeated emails and phone calls to transportation have led to zero action. I have yet to get even a response to an email...not even a "we'll look into it." The transportation department does not care one whit about customer service.

Charlie Mas said...

Would it improve things if the gap between each tier were expanded?

If, for example, there was a full hour between the start of first tier and the start of second tier and then another full hour before the start of third tier schools, would that give enough of a cushion so problems creating delays on one route would not carryover to the next route as well?

It would, of course, significantly change start times. If the first tier schools (elementary schools I would hope) would have to start around 7:45 so the third tier schools (high schools I would hope) could start at 9:45. I guess that means that the high schools wouldn't finish until 4:15. What would be messed up by that?

Anonymous said...

On Charlie's suggestion:

A few things that could be messed up in the short-term are sports, after-school clubs, jobs, time for homework. And a 4:45 dismissal would require a lot of high-schoolers to take public transportation in the middle of rush hour and after dark in the winter months (something I won't allow my 16-yr-old to do because I don't want her walking home from the bus stop or light rail after dark).

I do think some f these things could adjust given the time, but I believe some sports need to practice early because of lighting issues.

Any idea ow many high-schoolers take yellow buses?


dj said...

Charlie, i have an elementary-school kid is on the third tier. She already gets home pretty late (almost two hours later than she did back in the day). Like the bus issues in general, it isn't the end of the world (it does make our evenings tough and already affects what extracurricular activities she can do), and if she were getting out much later at this point, she would be coming home in the dark. Again, there are worse things, but I think I'd like to see some evidence that this is actually saving the district a lot of money. It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence when the district's own people are suggesting it might not be.

Maureen said...

I wonder if just flipping the start times could help (without spreading the tiers out farther.) Most yellow bus service is for K-5 kids, if they were all switched to the 1st & 2nd tiers then then the kids who were left waiting or who were being dropped on a random schedule would be more likely to be older, so more able to be alone and inconvenience parents less.

I went to a talk by a UW Biologist at RHS a few weeks ago. Adolescents NEED to start later. It is an ingrained part of their Biology. Sports, after school jobs and needs of younger sibs should not be driving what should be an academic decision. Some Minnesota school Districts flipped start times and saw significant improvements in HS students' performance including a reduction in drop out rates.

anonymous said...
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anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

High schools need to be later. Even much later. 11:00am or noon. Sports practices & clubs can be before school.

We know it improves academic outcomes and decreases drop out rates. We know it improves safety among teen drivers. We know it decreases depression & anxiety diagnoses among teens. We know it decreases teen pregnancy and substance abuse to have teens in school in the afternoon. We know that there are biological reasons that teens are sleep deprived with early school starts.

I can't believe we are still requiring teens to be at school for the early shift. And I really can't believe that we devote their best learning hours to afternoon sports practice.

-High school parent

wave said...

Re: cleaner buses, several years ago I was part of a group that was lobbying the district to use biodiesel to fuel their buses. Studies have shown that kids who ride diesel-fueled school buses have a much higher rate of asthma. Using biodiesel would be an easy way to signficantly reduce those toxic emissions, which would be better both for the kids riding the buses as well as for regional air quality in general. Since the district does not own the buses, they could just include it in the contract that the bus operator must use biodiesel in their buses. There are plenty of school districts that do this, including several in WA state. Yes, biodiesel can cost a bit more than regular diesel, but those costs are arguably offset by reduced maintenance costs associated with biodiesel (it is easier on engines than "dirty" diesel). Our group (we called ourselves the Breathable Bus Coalition) had some talks with the district transpo folks, but it seemed to always come down to fuel cost. If the health of the children was really prioritized, then it's a no-brainer.

ws1 said...

The NSAP gerrymandered school assignment boundaries all over town to fit someone's bizarre political agendas. In West Seattle, for instance, thousands of children are within walking distance to true neighborhood schools, but are assigned to schools further away. Not green, not logical, not fair, not rational, not economical, not cool.