Opinion

Are students’ buses necessarily yellow? | Guest Opinion

After a quick breakfast everyone heads out. Mom and Dad to workplaces, the kids to different schools. Mom and Dad travel in separate cars. The kids mosey down the street to two school bus stops, one for secondary, one for elementary. Maybe a block farther than last year to help cut transportation costs.

Schools everywhere are struggling to meet their obligation to the public on trimmed-back budgets. Exuberant school boards that toyed with program expansions before the bubble burst have turned grim. Necessary cuts are met with justified howls of anguish and more blood-letting is expected before it’s over. Schools are financed by tax revenue that continues to fall. Money derived from school bonds is based on assessed property valuations and for the first time, my latest valuation showed a drop.

Not inspecting every detail of school finance for possible savings would be as silly as the GOP’s hard-edged protection of tax breaks for the ultra rich. If there’s such a thing as being on top of a bottomless problem, Marysville’s school board and administration are addressing everything in sight for savings while working to make cuts as painless as possible.

So what about bus transportation? They could cut the number of stops in the name of increased exercise for teens. Even in good times, planners tweak routes and schedules to get the biggest bang for the transportation buck so there’s little to gain there. And there’s the inflexible body of school law that prescribes schools’ responsibilities for ensuring safe passage of students from home to school and back.

School transportation in Washington constitutes a vast empire. A total of 9,300 buses travel the equivalent of a trip to the moon a back each day. Many fleets are district owned and operated, like Marysville’s. Other districts have opted to privatize, contracting with Durham Transportation for equipment and drivers.

To privatize or not privatize may not be the question. A third option calls for careful analysis of evolving programs to determine if certain of a district’s transportation needs might best met by public buses. This is done elsewhere when individual students need transport to other campuses where special electives are offered.

It is fairly common for juniors and seniors from area high schools to ride CT buses to Everett Community College or the Skill Center near Paine Field. Home-schooled students taking advantage of lab classes in public schools would like the possibility of using public transport for the limited part of the day they spend on campus.

We’re faced with constriction of school transportation services at the same time Community Transit announced a 20 percent cut in services effective February 2012. With school busing and Community Transit dialing back service, planners in both systems are casting about for more affordable ways to get riders from A to B. Economists would leap to the  judgment that our  total  transportation system suffers from specialized redundancy. Too many systems serve the same population on the same turf.

Kids do ride city buses here and there. King County is floating a deal with Metro to market low-price passes to students. Public buses in Virginia’s Montgomery and Prince George counties haul kids to and from school. Bay City Michigan issues student passes for city buses. Los Angeles uses Metro buses to transport students to special events and field trips.

As of 2006, students at Seattle’s Ballard and Franklin high schools began commuting via Metro with special student passes. The move that idled a number of yellow buses was anticipated to save $2 million per year. The change wasn’t without problems. Experience told that rather than students being at risk among adult riders, adults are often offended by teenagers’ language and behavior.

The L.A. example is quite creative. It reserves a.m. and p.m. hours for commuters, using slack hours to move kids to special school events. Following that model, planners might seek out opportunities to cut deals with CT that would put needed revenue in CT coffers while trimming a bit from school district expenses. Would it work? One can’t know until opportunities for cooperation are defined and the right questions asked.

The need for a school district bus fleet is profound in Darrington, Mossyrock or Cle Elum where no community transport system serves the area. Likewise, a natural appendage to any budding metropolis is public transportation. Moving masses of people becomes essential. A part of this evolution should be a degree of cooperation between bus fleets that benefits both.

It would be a thorny issue to sort out and any savings would constitute a small bit of the shortfall. And there is a mish-mash of Washington State RCWs, federal law and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction policy to deal with. Further, it might be seen as a threat to the school transportation department.

Whatever the problems, count on this climate of change and economy to drive budget issues from where they stand to a different reality as planners think outside the box.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.

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