Wichita district could eliminate some bus routes, start schools earlier

Buses filled with Stucky Middle School students leave school for the day. (March 24, 2016)
Buses filled with Stucky Middle School students leave school for the day. (March 24, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Some Wichita students may have to wake up earlier and walk more next school year, as officials consider moving up school start times and eliminating some bus routes to save money on transportation.

Wichita school board members, on a quest to cut $16 million to $30 million from next year’s budget, on Monday will hear information about a plan that would move start times at some secondary schools from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. It was unclear last week which schools would start earlier.

Wichita school district’s chief financial officer Jim Freeman briefed media on Tuesday, reviewing options presented on Monday night. USD 259 faces cost increases of up to $30 million next school year and no additional state funding. (March 22, 201

The move would reduce the number of buses required for 8 a.m. routes, which could trim the district’s overall transportation budget, now about $27 million a year.

Officials also could reduce the number of hazardous-route bus rides, canceling those that no longer meet criteria outlined in a district policy. That could force hundreds or thousands of students who live within 2 1/2 miles of their assigned schools to walk or find rides starting this fall.

“We’re doing a deep analysis of it, looking at the impact and looking at what it would mean financially,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for Wichita schools.

“We’re not looking at eliminating hazardous (route) transportation altogether,” he said. “We are simply looking at applying the policy that’s been in place.”

Hazardous routes

Wichita, the state’s largest school district with about 51,000 students, spends about $27 million annually on buses, fuel and related expenses. Much of it – between 60 and 80 percent, calculated using a complex formula – is reimbursed by the state and federal government.

It is up to local school boards to determine whether they also provide transportation under hazardous conditions for students who live within 2 1/2 miles of their assigned schools.

For as long as most district officials can remember, Wichita has provided bus rides for children whose walking routes would force them across busy intersections, railroad tracks or streets with fast-moving traffic and no walkway.

About 3,600 students receive hazardous-route transportation this year. Another 1,000 receive space-available transportation, meaning they’re picked up along established routes if those buses have empty seats and enough time to stop.

Over the past five years, the number of students receiving hazardous-route rides has increased nearly 40 percent as the district opened new schools in remote areas without established walking paths.

Students who live close to Christa McAuliffe Academy, for example, a K-8 school at 143rd Street East and Pawnee, qualify for hazardous busing because there are ditches along both roads leading to it.

Hazardous routes in some parts of the city were established decades ago and never dropped, despite improvements such as sidewalks and crosswalks that make walking safer.

Similarly, Stucky Middle School, at 45th Street North and Oliver, and the new Isely Elementary, at 53rd Street North and Woodlawn, provide bus rides for students in nearby neighborhoods.

About 250 students live within 2 1/2 miles of Heights High School, 5301 N. Hillside, and the district provides bus transportation to all of them, even though its policy requires hazardous-route rides for only elementary and middle school.

Hazardous routes in some parts of the city were established decades ago and never dropped, despite infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and pedestrian-controlled crosswalks that make walking safer.

“In some ways it’s an equity issue,” Armendariz said. “The same rules should apply to all students, regardless of what area of the city you live in.”

Longer walks

In 2012, after the district closed several schools and shifted attendance boundaries, students in parts of the district faced much longer walks.

Some children who live just blocks away from the former Lincoln Elementary, 1210 S. Topeka, now are assigned to Washington Elementary, near Central and Hydraulic.

Their two-mile, 40-minute walk to school takes them across railroad tracks, under the Kellogg bypass and through downtown Wichita – and it does not qualify as a hazardous route.

Julie Bettis, principal at Harry Street Elementary in south Wichita, says she understands why the district might need to trim its transportation budget by requiring more kids to walk. But safety and equity should be considered as well, she said.

“It is a real issue for parents to be able to get their kids to school when it’s a long way,” said Bettis, whose school also gained students when Lincoln Elementary closed.

It is a real issue for parents to be able to get their kids to school when it’s a long way.

Julie Bettis, principal, Harry Street Elementary

Harry Street has been fighting chronic absenteeism, and officials cite transportation as a primary culprit. Parents without cars either walk their children to school or send them on their own, but some say they don’t want their 5- and 6-year-olds crossing busy streets or walking in pouring rain or bitter cold.

“We look at things like trying to get to know their neighbors and maybe partnering with someone else who has a car,” Bettis said. Other families get city bus passes or the school directs kids from neighboring homes to walk together.

“The bottom line is our kids’ safety has to be the first thing that we think about,” Bettis said.

“But equity is an issue, too: Are those (hazardous) bus routes in areas where parents could drive their children to school, or are they in areas where families are already challenged by transportation issues?”

Starting schools earlier

Armendariz, the transportation director, said he couldn’t say how much money might be saved by more strictly enforcing the hazardous busing policy. Many students along hazardous routes are picked up by buses on regular routes at no additional expense.

But starting some schools earlier – at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. – could substantially reduce the number of buses overall and trim the cost of the district’s annual contract with First Student, he said.

“We’re looking at a combination that includes hazardous routes and possibly changing some (school) start times,” Armendariz said. “That’s where you’d get the bulk of your savings.”

480 number of buses the Wichita school district requires each day

$42,000estimated cost per bus per year

Wichita uses about 480 buses a day, at a cost of about $42,000 per year per bus.

Arranging start times into three tiers means one bus potentially can be used to transport students to three schools, which reduces the number of buses required. Earlier start times at more schools would allow the district to more evenly distribute riders and make the most of its transportation dollars, Armendariz said.

Currently, most Wichita secondary and K-8 schools start at 8 a.m. Most elementary schools start at 9 a.m. A handful of secondary magnet schools – Northeast Magnet High, Allison, Brooks, Mayberry and Jardine – start earlier, at 7 a.m.

Sleepy teenagers

Should district leaders opt to start more middle or high schools earlier, they would do so amid growing concerns about adolescent sleep.

About two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report calling insufficient sleep among adolescents a public health issue.

The group said making middle and high school students start classes before 8:30 a.m. threatens children’s physical and mental health, safety and academic performance, and it called on school districts to move start times later to give teens a better shot at getting at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep a night.

After the report, districts in some parts of the country debated whether school should start later for teenagers. In Wichita, officials pointed to transportation costs as a primary reason to stick with the status quo.

Matthew Creasman, principal at Northeast Magnet High, said at the time that the 7 a.m. start at his school isn’t a problem for most students. Many come from magnet middle schools, which also start at 7.

“We’ve had a pretty good run of success for many years at Northeast Magnet,” Creasman said. Most years, the school gets more than three times as many applicants as its number of available spots. “So we have managed to be successful with the 7 a.m. start time.”

Board member Lynn Rogers notes, though, that changing school start times is likely to upset some students and families. So would eliminating bus routes or consolidating bus stops and requiring children to walk farther, he said.

“We’ve got to think about some of the unintended consequences,” he said, such as student safety and what effect the changes might have on attendance.

Rogers added, though, that he’d prefer cutting back on transportation to cutting jobs. Reducing the number of buses the district requires could also alleviate a critical bus driver shortage, which has led to delays and other issues, he said.

“Most of the other (suggested) cuts, they have faces to them,” Rogers said. “Anything we can do to not do this on the backs of our people, who are already overworked and underpaid, we need to try to do that.”

Wichita public schools superintendent John Allison comments on Supreme Court ruling that Kansas school funding is inequitable. (Feb. 11, 2016/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle.)

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

Related stories from Wichita Eagle