Workshop to boost school bus efficiency
LAND O' LAKES - Figuring out how many students can ride in a 65-passenger school bus seems simple. But the obvious answer isn't necessarily the correct one, partly because seat width and student girth don't always match, says Gary Sawyer, director of transportation for the Pasco County School District. "Most high school students don't fit in a 13-inch seat," he said. That tantalizing tidbit was just one of many Pasco County School Board members learned last week during a board workshop aimed at finding ways to save money by making school-bus service more efficient.They discussed GPS units, employee retention, alternative fuels and mandatory student programs that lead to inefficient bus routes. The discussions aren't over. The board needs to revisit the issue at a future workshop because board member Steve Luikart presented his own lengthy report on making the transportation more budget friendly. That report evolved from a task force Luikart headed earlier this year to explore the idea of a four-day school week. The four-day week was shelved, but the task force came up with other cost-saving suggestions. Luikart and John Thompson, one of the task force members, delved into ways the transportation department can spend less. Luikart noted that some of the numbers he and Thompson came up with, such as those for average bus occupancy, don't jibe with what the transportation department provided to board members. "My concern is the consistency of reporting and to make sure all the numbers are accurate," Luikart said. One thing not in dispute: Getting children to and from schools on a daily basis is a massive operation. Each day, 37,000 Pasco students ride a bus, which is more than half the student population. The transportation department operates 388 buses that serve 78 schools. Sawyer said his department implemented a number of changes over the past few years aimed at shaving costs and improving efficiencies. Employee retention, a problem in the past, improved markedly, he said. In the 2007-08 school year, the retention rate for newly hired bus drivers was 42 percent. By 2011-12 that improved to 82 percent. "We believe our training program is responsible for better preparing these folks," Sawyer said. The number of bus accidents has decreased. In 2008-09, Pasco buses were involved in 244 crashes. That number, dropping each year, was down to 145 in 2011-12. "There is a savings in reducing the number of accidents because there's less repair involved," Sawyer said. The last major bus purchase was in 2008 when the district bought 138 buses, Sawyer said. He said the district usually keeps a bus 10 to 12 years. Hanging on to older vehicles saves money on the purchasing side of the equation, but comes with its own cost, Assistant Superintendent Renalia DuBose said. "The longer we keep them, the more the maintenance cost goes up," she said. Looking to the future, the district wants to equip buses with GPS, which could help save money, Sawyer said. Routes could be audited without the need for a staff member to ride along. The GPS units could also be equipped with an alarm that would let headquarters know if a bus wandered outside its assigned area. The report Luikart shared with his fellow board members concluded that Pasco isn't getting the most efficient use of its buses. An average of 34.5 students ride a bus on any given route, which means roughly 53.5 percent of the fleetwide seating capacity is being used, the report said. Figuring out average bus occupancy can get complicated, though, Sawyer said. While most school buses in Pasco are 65-passenger buses, not all are. The district uses about 10 different bus sizes, ranging from 16-passenger buses to those designed for 65. The 65-passenger buses make up 72 percent of the fleet, but they don't truly hold 65 students. Most of the bus seats are theoretically designed for three people, but that allows just a 13-inch-wide space for each rider, Sawyer said. That's sufficient for the typical elementary school student, but not so much for teenagers, he said. What constitutes a "full" bus depends on who is riding and how big they are, Sawyer said. For high school students, the target number is 44. If high school and middle school students are mixed together, it's 50. Middle school only is 54 and elementary only is 62. Another factor that affects bus occupancy is the transportation of sometimes relatively small groups of students for specific educational programs or services. Those programs include special education, McKay scholarships, International Baccalaureate, gifted, career academies, alternative schools and others. Board member Allen Altman said empty bus seats are not a problem he hears much about. "On my side of the county, all my complaints were about overcrowded buses and not enough seats," Altman said.
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