Wichita school district explores more options to cut busing costs

Stucky Middle School students board buses to leave school for the day. Wichita school officials are looking at several options to cut down on transportation costs. (March 24, 2016)
Stucky Middle School students board buses to leave school for the day. Wichita school officials are looking at several options to cut down on transportation costs. (March 24, 2016) File photo

Some Wichita elementary and middle school students could share buses and some high-school students could walk farther to their stops next school year as officials consider additional strategies to cut transportation costs.

“The difference in savings is contingent upon the amount of change” school board members approve, said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

“The less change we make, the less we will save; the more change we make, the more, potentially, we have to save,” he said. “But as we know, with change will also come other consequences.”

Wichita school board members, on a quest to cut nearly $23 million from next year’s budget, are exploring several measures to reduce transportation costs.

Leaders likely will reduce the number of students receiving hazardous-route bus rides by nearly two-thirds next year – from about 3,700 to about 1,500 – canceling those that no longer meet criteria outlined in a district policy.

They also are considering changing start times at several schools, which would reduce the number of buses needed at 8 a.m. and trim the cost of the district’s annual contract with First Student.

‘Pairing’ schools, combining buses

This week, Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, said his staff is exploring two more options to reduce bus costs.

The first: Wichita could “pair” four middle schools with their elementary school neighbors, starting those schools at the same time and consolidating the bus routes that serve them.

For example, Curtis Middle School, near Lincoln and Edgemoor, could share buses with Caldwell Elementary, just to its south, Freeman said. Other potential pairings include Marshall Middle with Woodland Elementary, Pleasant Valley Middle with Pleasant Valley Elementary, and Truesdell Middle with Woodman Elementary.

“Changing start times for some schools where we pair schools together becomes more efficient,” Freeman said. “If we put them on the same tier, we actually save several buses.”

It’s unclear precisely how start times would change at those schools. Because the district wants to reduce the number of buses needed at 8 a.m., the four middle schools potentially could switch to a 9 a.m. start to coincide with the elementary schools.

However, the district still may have to switch some schools to a 7 a.m. start to better distribute buses and reduce its overall cost.

Four-block rule

Transportation officials also are exploring potential cost savings that could be gleaned from requiring students to walk farther to bus stops.

According to current district policy, Wichita middle and high school students are required to be picked up and delivered at a stop “not to exceed four blocks from their residence.”

Elementary students must be picked up no more than two blocks from their homes. Students with disabilities and some others are picked up and dropped off at their homes, according to policy.

Freeman said extending the distance high school students walk to stops could save the district “a considerable amount of money” in fuel, if not overall bus costs.

“We’re looking at the option of having those students walk to a static stop, to group more of them together so the buses don’t have to travel as far,” Freeman said.

Transporting students to Northeast Magnet High School is particularly costly, Freeman said, because that school, near 53rd Street North and Rock Road in Bel Aire, draws students from all over the district.

Officials have looked at requiring Northeast Magnet students who live within 2.5 miles of their base high school to walk to that school to catch a bus to Northeast, he said. Under that plan, buses could pick up several students in one place, saving time and fuel.

“That’s an extreme option, you might say, but we’re looking at everything,” Freeman said. “We’re going to look at that policy, and that’s something we’d have to work with the board on to see what that means.”

Transportation costs rising

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, transports nearly 18,000 students by bus, at a cost of about $27 million a year.

The district’s transportation budget is projected to rise this fall when a new Southeast High School opens near 127th Street East and Pawnee.

Several new schools built near the outskirts of the district as part of the 2008 bond issue, including the new Northeast Magnet and Christa McAuliffe Academy, at 143rd Street East and Pawnee, have increased transportation costs because buses are carrying more students greater distances.

When the Wichita school board voted in 2013 to build the new Southeast High, Allison said transportation costs for that school would increase as much as $560,000 a year, depending on routes and attendance patterns.

Southeast currently shares buses with Curtis Middle School because the schools share a parking lot and start time. That won’t be possible next year, which will increase the district’s bus costs for both schools.

Freeman said his staff is exploring several options to trim costs and will propose a range of transportation changes to school board members at their next meeting on May 9.

Changes being considered would generate $1.2 million to $1.8 million in savings, he said.

“We’re still working on that, mostly because we think we can get even higher (cost savings) than that,” Freeman said. “There are some conversations to have … before we come to the final recommendation.”

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