While perhaps an unconventional way to route for the school year, Christopher Walls directed the transportation department for Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) in Missouri to base decisions on the number of school bus drivers available.
The district contracts with Student Transportation of America to provide school bus transportation as well as with a local cab company and alternative transportation provider Everdriven, while also utilizing district-owned Type A buses and a fleet of white vehicles. Walls, the Kansas City’s director of transportation, noted that the district owns and operates about 10 percent of the total operation.
Walls started with KCPS in June 2019 and is going on his 10th year in transportation. Prior to working at KCPS, he was the executive director for the School Bus Safety Company. He started in the industry in 2011 as the director of transportation for Indianapolis Public Schools following 12 years in the U.S. Army with the 101st Airborne Division transportation company. He still currently serves in the National Guard as a chaplain to help soldiers and their families.
Walls said emerging from COVID-19 forced him to evaluate routes differently than ever before. “I don’t think anyone in our industry expected the sharp decline that we saw,” he said speaking of the number of school bus drivers. “We had all been isolated so much. Nobody really knew what to expect.”
He said when returning to in-person learning, the district polled employees and assumed that those who said they were planning to return would actually show up for work, he recalled. “It was something completely new in this business, to experience both a COVID shutdown and then kind of reopening afterwards,” he said. “The only thing I can compare the feeling to is a bear going into hibernation and then waking back up. [That] is what it what it felt like where you’re kind of relearning the environment right from when you went into your hibernation state. When you come out of it, It’s a completely different element.”
He said going into the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring of 2020, KCPS had 165 school bus drivers (both contracted and in-house) and expected most of them to show up when school reopened. But when not everyone who said they were going to work again showed up to select a school bus route at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Walls said the district was substantially down drivers. Then, an additional 10 drivers that did return ended up leaving.
[Editor’s Note: KCPS routes students for both the district and contracted transportation service.]
Walls attributed the exodus to the additional safety measures of masking, hand sanitizer application, and school bus disinfecting. This caused KCPS to reduce the number of routes to a level never seen before.
The first step to addressing the issue, he said, was reviewing the routes and the routing software, which pairs routes together and estimates if another run can be added. He noted that the transportation department began the process by identifying routes that could transition to triple tiers.
“We took anywhere we saw only a double instead of a triple route running and found a way to make something forcefully fit so that every single bus ran as a triple tiered route no matter what,” he said. “And then we looked to remove some of the excesses. Why didn’t it fit or there were three extra stops that caused it to run over its time or to run beyond its capacity. And then we started to remove those stops or those students and find other [routes] for them to find somewhere else to put those students. So that was one exercise that we did that helped us shave quite a few routes off.”
The second thing, he said, was looking at actual ridership numbers. Walls said he continually reviews this data throughout a normal school year. But last school year, he started the process earlier. He noted that he was able to collapse some bus routes into one and make other routes a little bit longer.
“And the bus [was] maybe five minutes late to school sometimes,” he shared. “But it definitely beats not having a bus at all arrive at school. So, we started to have to make some of those difficult adjustments, to say this is what we can do and find a way to get everybody to school, even if they’re at school a little later than what we’d like to happen.”
Walls decided to do something different for this school year. Only after determining all drivers who were available by physically counting those that came into the office did the department create the routes.
He said 115 bus drivers were available, so the district created 110 bus routes. “Everything is reliant on buses being on time, drivers showing up to work on time, buses leaving the lot exactly when they’re supposed to,” he commented. “There being no major traffic delays, the buses will arrive at school on time.”
He said ideally he would like around 130 bus routes. “But we’ve made that decision to staff and route to what our staffing was, rather than create routes and try to staff up to that level,” he said. “And I think that’s worked very well. We’ve been able to cover bus routes daily. And we still are able to make some of the after-school athletics events, sporting matches, games, tutoring, after school activities.”
Walls noted that it’s no easy task to manage several transportation vendors. “I’ve really tried to isolate transportation providers to a certain area,” he said. “I’ve got a primary transportation provider that handles the bulk of my home-to-school delivery for general education students. I’ve got another transportation provider who primarily works with our McKinney-Vento homeless students. And then I’ve got a third transportation provider that focuses more on our special education students.”
The district also contracts out its crossing guards, so Walls manages four contractors in all.
He said the local cab service in Kansas City is rather robust and the district has been a partner for close to 35 years. He said the company created a school division within the cab service. “It’s not just a taxicab service,” Walls explained. “They’re the standard taxis that you would see out on the street if you needed a ride from point A to point B, and then they’ve actually got their own separated division for us. That is their school division.”
He explained that the school division contains routers and customer service support management. Drivers are also required to pass the full FBI fingerprint background checks and receive CPR and first aid training. He added that each school division cab must also include interior video and audio, and the vehicle must have active GPS.
He said on a normal operating day, the cab service transports a select group of students, normally district students experiencing homelessness or students who live out of district. He said that several routes travel across state lines into Kansas as well. He noted that because the cab company does things differently, they provide their own routing based on their fleet makeup that day or what’s available in the area.
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“I give them the list of students, and they’ve got their own routers that route their students,” he said, adding that the school cab division also helps with extra situations that arise. “I have a student that had to be transported to the hospital. They are okay, but they needed to be there for about 48 hours. The parent was notified, and they didn’t have a way to get there. So, I used our school cab division to transport mom from her place of work to the hospital to visit with her child, so that the child is not by themselves.
“So, they’re able to do a little bit of that on demand responsiveness for us,” he continued. “Most urban districts you encounter are going to have so many variables throughout any given day that you need some sort of flexibility.”