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District studies transportation system

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Bus drivers voice concerns; substitute drivers at a premium

By Thomas Barr

 SHEPHERDSVILLE -- What's less fun than getting up at 4 a.m. to check road conditions?

Mentioning the possibility of changing school bus routes in Bullitt County.

On the eve of yet another early morning road check, two dozen bus drivers were part of a discussion with members of the Bullitt County Public School Board.

In the December work session, director Staci Goedde opened discussions on the possible change to what many may consider a sacred cow -- bus routes.

Even before Goedde revealed her first slide on the Power Point presentation, superintendent Keith Davis told the assembled drivers that the district was only looking for ideas.

If there were ways to be more efficient, that could return more money to the classrooms, said Davis.

Both Davis and Goedde said that discussions on possible changes would not be done to cut positions.

Over 10 years ago, the district purchased TransFinder software with the idea of having it more efficiently design bus routes.

Spending over $4.3 million a year, and doing that with a $1.6 million shortfall in reimbursement from the state, Davis said the district must look at ways to save money.

And before the presentation started, board member Roger Hayes, who served as a bus driver following his retirement from the district as a principal, said that he was pleased to see drivers in attendance.

He would strongly encourage getting input from the drivers on any proposed changes. In the past, he said a major issue is that the drivers have not had a voice.

In looking at the current system, which has only had minor tweaks done in the past, Goedde said the district must look at student safety, efficiency and customer service.

The current guidelines are that students in middle and high schools would walk no further than one mile to reach a bus stop. For elementary students, that limit would be one-half mile.

Board member Darrell Coleman said he didn't want anyone to walk that far on some of the roads in the county.

"I don't care for this at all," Coleman said of the distance standards.

Hayes said he didn't see how one guideline could be used for a district with 23 schools located in various areas with different conditions.

Board member Dolores Ashby especially didn't like it when high school kids were walking in the dark of the morning to reach a bus.

Davis said there are deviations from the policy but Goedde was looking for some guidance from the board.

In an ideal world, children would be picked up at every door, said Davis. In reality, the less stops a driver makes, the less time and money is devoted to transportation.

Hayes was concerned that having a policy that has no room for common sense could hurt the kids.

Bus driver Mike Breeden said if he picked up all his middle school riders on the main road, which would be Highway 44, he could shorten his time tremendously.

But Goedde said that would not be safe for the youngsters. That is why she said simply having a software system figure out routes would not work without the input of the drivers.

The beauty of the software is that when coordinated with the Infinite Campus, every student's residence is located. And the system knows the potential number of students who could ride a particular bus on a specific route.

Goedde said a study of the routes could possibly affect the number of buses. However, the district doesn't have enough drivers to cover the existing routes.

At the current time, six drivers are out on long-term leaves. There are only 3-4 substitute drivers. The solution has been to have double runs or for existing drivers to pick up additional streets.

She said there is a possibility that an existing route might be split between current drivers but that is where the study would be needed.

Thanks to a push to recruit more drivers, Goedde said the number of applicants has increased.

Donna Dennis, one of three coordinators who are also bus trainers, said it is a long process to get an applicant ready to take over a bus.

There is both classroom and on-the-road testing which is done, as well as the normal background check and drug screening.

Ideally, Goedde would like to have a group of flexible drivers who are full-time and can be assigned to any area, as the need arises.

With existing drivers taking additional streets, it only adds to the drive time. Hayes said that kids will get missed and they will either not attend school or arrive tardy.

"It's remarkable," Goedde said of how the drivers coordinate to pick up extra streets.

Ashby said that her experience as a bus monitor qualifies herself as being one who knows how tough the job of being a driver really is every day.

At times, Ashby recalled being scared to look out the bus window as it traveled down a narrow, curvy road with nothing but a big valley to the side.

She credited the bus drivers with having a major influence over the youngsters. Ashby said the drivers can set the tone for the rest of the day for that student.

Goedde agreed.

However, when talking about any changes to the routes, there were more questions than answers.

After making sure students are safe to reach the bus stop, Goedde said each route needs to be measured on its efficiency.

Factors include the length of the route; drive time of the bus; student time on the bus; arrival and departure times; elimination of double runs; the amount of down time between runs; and the various shuttles provided by the district.

Going back to the issue of having enough drivers, Hayes said the three coordinator positions were established to deal with training and hiring issues.

Since July, 14 full-time drivers have been trained and hired. But more have left or been placed on medical leave.

Dennis said the coordinators do train but they also have many other responsibilities.

By placing the buses throughout the county with an invitation for those wishing to be bus drivers, Dennis said applications are up.

Besides the issue of possible job cuts or hour reductions, bus parking was a top topic.

About one-third of the current drivers take their buses home each night. Some in the audience had take-home bus privileges taken away due to the policies.

Davis said some of those are being reconsidered.

Goedde said some of the concerns of having buses on private property deal with liability issues. Some buses have suffered damages while sitting at a person's home.

On the flip side, several drivers said that it is a perk for both the driver and the school system. If kept at home, drivers said they take better care of the vehicles and several mentioned adding to their private driveways to accommodate the buses. Also, they have electric plug-ins for the buses and the individuals pay for that service.

If the school system required all buses to remain on district property, Goedde said there is then the issue of determining where to store the buses and how that might affect the drivers and the school.

Having the buses at home saves time for the drivers, as well as wear and tear on the vehicles, said several in the audience.

"We're looking for fairness," Goedde said of looking at the policies and the routes.

If routes are altered, there is some system needed to determine if drivers with seniority can bump less experienced drivers from a desired route. Goedde said that is all part of the investigation.

Before any changes, if any, are made, Goedde said there would need to be much discussion.

Through the end of the year, she hopes to get training completed on TransFinder.

One of the first questions to be answered is whether schools have a space to house a number of buses.

A bus driver committee would be formed in January and those are the people who will need to remain in contact with fellow bus drivers.

By February, Goedde would like to have a rough draft of the routes ready to discuss.

In March and April, Goedde would like to meet with drivers to look at the proposed routes.

And before August, any changes would have to be presented to the parents.

Ashby said the key component in the discussions will be drivers getting their input to the committee.

The goal is to make the transportation system as efficient as possible to return dollars to the classroom.

Linda Belcher, who was a former transportation director and currently serves as a substitute bus driver, said the district has a very high calibre of drivers who are very dedicated to their profession.

"They work hard and they care about the kids," said Belcher.

Davis said there is no guarantee of what might come out of the study. 

"The easiest thing to do is to do nothing," said Davis.