Wichita’s school-busing costs increasing 9 percent

When Wichita school leaders voted this spring to close some schools, open new ones and shift attendance boundaries, a key issue in the debate was busing.

Would the new plan mean more money spent on school buses or less?

The answer is more.

As superintendent John Allison prepares to present his budget to the school board and buses prepare for their first practice runs, estimates show that the district will spend about $25.7 million on transportation this school year – a 9 percent increase over last year.

Part of the jump is because of higher gas prices and a 3 percent increase in the district's contract with First Student Inc., the district's bus contractor.

And part is related to new schools opening in far reaches of the district, including a magnet high school and elementary in Bel Aire, and Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 school at Pawnee and 143rd Street East.

“We’re seeing a few more runs than last year, but it’s still very early in our process,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation services.

“As enrollment slows down, we review routes, and mix and match, and make adjustments and reductions to whatever extent possible,” he said. “It’s changing through August and past Labor Day.”

This year, Wichita’s smallest high school will employ the largest fleet of buses.

Nearly 60 buses will line up each morning and afternoon at Northeast Magnet High School, which moved this year from 17th and Chautauqua to a new building near 55th North and Rock Road. That’s about one bus for every 10 students who attend Northeast Magnet – though each bus can hold about 45 high school students.

District officials note that most of Wichita’s buses are “triple-routed,” which means one bus is used to transport students to three schools with different start and end times. And most of the cost of transporting students is reimbursed by the state or federal government.

The real challenge at Northeast Magnet, Armendariz said, is that it draws students from all over the city. Because the district tries to limit students’ commute time to 50 minutes or less each way, a bus that picks up a student in far west Wichita at 6:15 a.m. couldn’t stop to pick up many more en route and still make it to Northeast by the 7 a.m. morning bell.

If the district opted to carry more students on fewer buses, students would spend more time riding each way.

“It’s a real balancing act,” Armendariz said. “We look at routes and start times and all these other factors.”

‘A big operation’

This fall, Northeast Magnet will employ 59 buses – 16 more than last year.

Enders Elementary, a new school near 31st South and Seneca, will employ 26 buses. The school was built to replace Lewis Open Magnet Elementary but will get some students from Emerson Open Magnet and Lincoln Elementary, which closed.

Eighteen buses will serve McAuliffe Academy in southeast Wichita, including seven for students attending a special-education program at the school. Officials estimated earlier this summer that McAuliffe would require only 12 buses.

And 17 buses will serve the new, much larger Isely Traditional Magnet Elementary, which moved from 18th and Poplar to a new building at 53rd North and Woodlawn.

Gil Alvarez, principal at Northeast Magnet, said planning for a fleet of nearly 60 buses was “a challenge, logistically, but we have a good plan.”

The school converted one of its student parking lots into a bus lot. Buses will flow into six lanes, marked and numbered recently with green paint, where they will park to wait for students in the afternoon.

In the mornings, buses will “drop and go” more quickly in lanes on the north side of the building, Alvarez said.

“There’s really no way around it, with the amount of students we get from across the district,” he said. “It’s a big operation.”

To compare, East High – which has about 2,300 students, including the districtwide International Baccalaureate magnet program – will employ 54 buses this fall. South and Northwest each will use about 20 buses for 1,500 students. Heights will employ 37 for about 1,600 students.

Some magnet middle schools also use dozens of buses. Brooks will require 53 buses this year for its 630 students. Mayberry will use 43 buses and Allison 41.

Only four Northeast Magnet High students live within 21/2 miles of the school – the distance beyond which students qualify for a bus. But even those four would qualify for a ride under the district’s hazardous busing policy.

Alvarez estimates that fewer than 100 students will drive to and from Northeast this year, in part because of its new location.

“We anticipate more riding buses,” he said. “I’ve talked to parents who don’t feel comfortable with kids driving that distance. They feel safer with the bus.”

‘A fluid process’

Boundary changes approved by the school board this spring meant rerouting buses and relocating many stops. Armendariz said drivers will begin their “dry runs” this weekend and will be ready for Wednesday, when most Wichita students return to school.

“The first day of school is always interesting,” he said. “The biggest thing is for people to be patient.”

If your child is riding a bus, officials encourage them to get to their assigned stop at least five minutes before the scheduled time, Armendariz said.

His staff will continue to adjust runs this week and next, as new students enroll and need to be worked into existing routes. If you have any questions about your bus route or time, call your child’s school.

“It’s a fluid process,” Armendariz said, “particularly those first few days and weeks.”