LARGO — Despite several efforts to get buses to run on time, the Pinellas County school district continues to struggle for solutions.
“Everybody is working as hard as they can,” Superintendent Kevin Hendrick told the School Board on Feb. 21. “At the end of the day, we have not solved our problem.”
To get closer, he unveiled several steps designed to reduce the need for additional drivers and make the routes more efficient. They include:
• Overhauling the bus stop model for school choice programs. It would reduce the number of “arterial” stops — which are limited to areas near main roads — to about 30 from the current 383.
• Combining bus routes for schools that are near each other. Those would include East Lake middle and high schools, Lakewood High and Bay Point Middle, and Sandy Lane and Kings Highway elementary schools.
• Changing start times for Clearwater Intermediate, East Lake Middle and Bay Point Middle. These would require School Board approval, with a vote expected in April.
The district also plans to conduct a ridership survey of all students, to determine which ones who are eligible for transportation intend to use the buses next fall. Currently, about 14,000 students who are eligible for rides do not use them.
But the district devises its routes for the “worst-case scenario” of everyone riding, assistant superintendent Clint Herbic told the board.
If the district knew who plans to take the bus in advance, it could better design routes, Herbic said. It’s critical at a time when the district is about 50 drivers short and has about 30 call in absent on an average day.
“Giving a seat to 14,000 students who don’t use it is not efficient in any way, shape or form,” Herbic said.
The district expects to run its survey so parents respond before the end of the current school year. Officials stressed that families would be able to change their minds, and they would not assume someone who does not respond will not need the bus.
“No student or family would not be routed just because they didn’t respond,” chief strategy and impact officer Jennifer Dull said.
During a presentation to the board in October, district officials said 92% of buses were on time to school in the mornings and 89% were on time delivering students back home. Herbic said those percentages are slightly lower now.
Hendrick said the most critical component to making the buses run closer to on time is changing the school choice busing system. As it works now, students in the program can access bus rides by getting to one of 383 stops along the arterial road system.
Transportation director T. Mark Hagewood told the board the goal is to shift the stops to about 30 middle and high schools, where parents would take their children to get the bus. Students would be assigned to stops closest to their homes.
Herbic said the change could save as much as 30 minutes daily for several routes, freeing up drivers to get children to school in a more timely manner.
Hagewood said the combination of bus routes from different schools has helped with efficiency during summer programs. He suggested doing so for the school year also could help, especially in areas with low ridership.
For example, he said, Lakewood High has 11 runs and Bay Point Middle has eight. By combining them, he said, the eight middle school runs could be absorbed, making those buses and drivers available to take routes in other locations.
Such changes would require bell time adjustments. Bay Point and East Lake middle schools would shift to 7:25 a.m. starts, earlier by nearly two hours. Deputy superintendent Stephanie Woodford said initial feedback from the school has been supportive.
Board members said they liked that the administration has taken a close look at ways to solve bus issues from several angles. Member Carol Cook noted that in the past, they have put restrictions on the ideas.
“We’re still trying to be the least disruptive but at the same time be efficient,” Cook said.
Board member Laura Hine stressed the importance of giving families plenty of time to react and respond to the changes, so they can prepare. She too noted the importance of improving efficiencies so kids can get to school on time.
Herbic said his division will continue to seek additional changes, perhaps including more schedule changes. At the end of the day, he said, the biggest issue remains getting enough drivers.
Until that can happen, he said, these changes should “narrow the gap.”