Adopting innovative bell times could be the single greatest move a district can make to save costs and address the national school bus driver shortage. However, adopting bell times without involving all stakeholders can lead to a great headache for district administrators.
In its purest form, a scheduling matrix can be designed to utilize the fewest possible school buses and drivers, which is the number needed to meet the needs of the district campus with the largest busing need. After that, it’s a matter of allocating the necessary number of drivers to other campuses and creating a new time tier, when the number of buses needed is equal to or less than the routes for that largest campus.
But practically speaking, that is probably not feasible. Factors preventing this simplistic approach include shared faculty among schools, parents with children on multiple campuses, inter-district schools that receive students transported by multiple school districts, students attending classes on more than one campus, and other legitimate educational needs of the students we serve.
So how as the transportation director do you start this process?
First, develop a plan. We start with basic math and a lot of questions that need to be answered.
- How many single, individual runs are required to meet your district’s fixed route system? This is defined as a bus route that makes “X” number of stops, then goes to one or more buildings before becoming a deadhead route.
- How many of those routes serve the elementary, middle and high schools as well as, the vocational center, etc?
- What is the sum of those routes?
- What is the longest time each route takes from the first student stop to arrival at school?
- What is the anticipated student count of each bus, broken down by stop if available?
- What is the earliest time, before the tardy bell, a student can arrive at school and be supervised?
- Does the school serve breakfast?
- How long do the cafeteria workers need to feed all students?
- What is the mandated length of day at each school?
Once you are armed with that information, you can start looking at a route reconfiguration. What is your current structure? Does each bus only serve one school? Two? Three? What is task time from terminal to terminal?
Talk to your superintendent and see if they are open to the idea. Find out what they think the community would accept as the earliest start time and the latest dismissal time. One of the first objections to a later dismissal may very well come from your athletic program. Also, your school nutrition program may have an issue with a later lunch time because that might increase their hours of operation.
Eventually, you will need to bring in most of your district administrators and present your ideas to them. Do your research. Be prepared for hard questions.
I recall a high school principal telling me that not a single high school in the state got out after 3:30 p.m. I pointed out to him that every high school in the largest district in the state, which happened to be our neighboring district, got out at 3:55 p.m.
A middle school, which was converting to a districtwide open enrollment charter school, wanted to extend its day to 5 p.m. in order to offer specialty programs to all students. I reminded those school officials that after daylight saving time ended in the fall, students would be picked up in the dark at school and be dropped off during rush hour traffic in the dark. (That charter school ignored my advice, until my predictions were proven correct. It changed to a 4:30 p.m. dismissal by the following Monday.)
The math is simple. If you run 100 single runs, you can cut your need for drivers to 50 if they can run two routes. A three-tiered system reduces necessary drivers to 33. But that is paper math, not pavement math. Each system is different, with varying needs, distinct parameters and social/political issues that impact a decision like this.
If you are struggling with driver shortages, bus replacement needs and/or payroll issues, I encourage you to explore a multi-tiered system of runs, even if it can’t be done districtwide. There may be benefits to your district.
Related: Student Transporters Tackle California’s New Bell Time Regulations
Related: School Buses and Changing Bell Times
Related: Recorded Webinar: Buses & Bell Times: Planning for Later School Start Times
John Haynie is a 35-year veteran of the transportation industry. In 2015, he retired from the North Little Rock School District as director of transportation. He was a member of the Arkansas Association of Pupil Transportation, for which he served as host of the annual conference for four years. The association awarded him the President’s Star in 2014.