If you ride a bus to a Wichita public school, chances are you don't have to walk very far to catch it.
A decades-old district policy mandates that bus stops for elementary school students be no farther than two blocks from a student's home. Middle school and high school students walk a maximum of four blocks — less than a quarter-mile — to their bus stops.
That could change in coming months, as officials explore options to save money on transportation.
"There are districts that make students walk a lot more than that," said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for the Wichita school district.
"Why is a student able to walk 2.4 miles to school — and they do — yet, if you qualify for (bus) transportation, you only walk two blocks or four blocks? ... I can tell you that if we increase the walk distance to stops, there's some savings there."
Armendariz says his staff has been "sitting on some policy changes," waiting for the right time to recommend them to district leaders. During a presentation to Wichita school board members this week, he said a committee will deliver options next spring for what could be some controversial changes to the district's busing practices.
Among the possibilities: earlier start times at more schools, longer walks to bus stops, new incentives to recruit and retain drivers, putting the bus contract up for bid, and changing boundaries in an area that's the last holdover from the district's system of busing for integration.
What does busing cost?
"From the outside, when you see a yellow bus traveling through, it seems very simple," Armendariz said. "But the reality is, it’s a very complicated operation."
Complicated — and expensive.
Wichita, the state's largest school district, contracts with Cincinnati-based First Student to run a fleet of 430 buses, at a cost of about $23.4 million a year. Next year that could increase to $26 million or more, thanks to rising fuel costs, a longer school year and cost hikes built into the annual bus contract.
The district transports about 16,000 students to and from school each day. The largest portion — more than 10,700 — qualify for bus rides because they live more than 2.5 miles from their neighborhood school or magnet program. About 1,700 qualify through special education services.
Another 1,500 ride buses because their walking routes would force them across busy intersections, railroad tracks or streets with fast-moving traffic and no walkway.
The remainder qualify for bus rides through regulations that protect homeless children, foster kids and students with disabilities, and about 800 receive space-available transportation, meaning they're picked up along established routes if those buses have empty seats and enough time to stop.
Much of the district's costs for busing — between 60 and 80 percent, calculated using a complex formula — is reimbursed by the state and federal government. But for the most part, local school district's can decide whether and to whom they provide transportation.
"When we're talking about choices, a bus is a real cost," said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools. "If we purchase a bus, what do we give up somewhere else?"
Rethinking start times
Two years ago, on a quest to trim nearly $23 million from the district's budget, board members cut 15 days from the school calendar and eliminated bus service for more than 2,100 students. This year the district will return to shorter school days and a longer school year, but a projected increase in state funding likely won't include more money for transportation.
So it's time to rethink bus costs again, Armendariz said.
"It's about finding that sweet spot between efficiencies and what's best for kids," he said. "For every bus we cut, it could potentially mean no hazardous(-route) transportation. It could mean kids are walking longer distances to a bus. Those are the challenges that we face."
When it comes to busing, the district's most elaborate challenge is Northeast Magnet High School, near 53rd Street North and Rock Road. The magnet school's 700 students live all over the city, so it takes 72 buses — more than most districts' entire fleet — to get them there.
Another challenge is Southeast High, at 127th Street East and Pawnee, which required 47 buses last year. Brooks Magnet Middle School required 42 buses, and Robinson Middle School, which houses the district's pre-IB program, required 24 buses.
Arranging school start times into three tiers — 7 a.m., 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. — means one bus potentially can be used to transport students to three schools, which reduces the number of buses required and saves money. But currently, because only a handful of secondary magnet schools start at 7 a.m., about 200 buses go unused at the early hour, Armendariz said.
"The first order of business would be bell times. That's a given," he told board members. "All those buses sitting idle at 7 a.m. — that would be the first thing to look at."
The option has plenty of opponents. Two years ago, district leaders proposed moving several schools' start times from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. to more evenly distribute buses and cut costs. Many families balked, and the leaders of Start School Later, a Maryland-based advocacy group, called the proposal "unconscionable."
They cited a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics that urged middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed that call, saying most American middle and high schools start the day too early, and that insufficient sleep threatens teens' physical and mental health, safety and academic performance.
Wichita, like school districts nationwide, has had trouble finding enough drivers to operate the hundreds of buses it needs to transport students.
Ideally, Armendariz said, the district would run 450 to 455 buses a day. Last year it ran 430.
That has meant packing students onto buses in numbers "that are within legal limits but that are not ideal," he said. Longer routes have pushed arrival times later, with some buses getting to school just five or 10 minutes before the morning bell.
And the crowding on some buses has affected behavior, Armendariz said.
"If you have 50 high school students in a confined space, it presents some challenges," he said. "It's not ideal. It's not what we want to do."
Starting pay for bus drivers next year will increase from $14.20 to $14.65 an hour. The district also plans to ramp up its efforts to recruit and retain drivers, in part by recognizing drivers who have worked 20 years or more for the district, and by considering new incentives.
"The entire industry is shifting. When I go to conferences, that is the No. 1 topic of conversation," Armendariz said. "When the local unemployment rate is so low, jobs like this are generally the last to get filled."
Busing for integration
Ten years ago, the Wichita school board approved a plan aimed at ending race-based busing for elementary students.
But when the district reconfigured attendance boundaries in 2012, it left in place a complicated patchwork of school assignments in one portion of the city — a predominantly African-American part of northeast Wichita known as the "assigned attendance area," or AAA.
Students in that area — bounded roughly by Central, 29th Street North, Hillside and Ohio — still qualify for bus rides to seven different high schools and 10 middle schools. They also get priority placement at magnet secondary schools.
"We have a handful of kids choosing to exercise that choice. But even if it's just one kid, we have to transport them," Armendariz said. "So in some instances, we have a full bus running with one or two kids from those areas."
The school assignments for secondary students are a holdover from the district's voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to maintain racially balanced schools.
The agreement called for no Wichita school to be more than 40 percent black or more than 55 percent white. Since the end of busing for integration, however, Wichita schools have become more racially segregated.
Armendariz told board members they could ask federal officials for permission to "not necessarily eliminate (the arrangement), but consolidate" school assignments within the area, which would allow buses to carry more students.
New bus company?
Wichita launched its contract with First Student in 2010, following 14 years with Durham School Services. District officials said at the time that both companies proposed the same overall cost, but First Student offered better bus safety and tracking.
The original contract was for seven years. The district is about to begin the second year of a three-year extension.
Armendariz said board members could consider putting the contract out for bid again, shopping around for better rates or service. But if so, they would need to request proposals sometime next spring.
"You need to allow for a transition," he said. It could take a year or more for a new bus company to get going, because large districts require hundreds of buses and drivers.