Spokane School Board could take final action Wednesday night on a short-term solution to address the district’s transportation problems.
Several alternatives are on the table, including a reduction in the number of stops per school, increasing the distance secondary students would have to walk to buildings and even a partnership with the Spokane Transit Authority.
Wednesday’s presentation is similar to one made during a work session on March 23. The major difference would affect middle and high school students who live too close to their school to receive district transportation.
Currently the district’s “walk boundary” is 1 mile, as the crow flies. The presentation on March 23 extended that to 2 miles, but several board members objected. The new proposal calls for a 1½-mile distance. The walk boundary for elementary students would remain at 1 mile.
Other proposals for next year include:
• Reducing the number of bus stops, which would mean students walk farther for a ride.
• Extending the time between routes, which would lengthen waiting times at schools.
• Partnering with STA to transport high school students.
• Exploring alternate transportation for Choice, Excelsior, Express and other programs.
It’s possible the board could approve one or more proposals and combine them into an overall strategy as it struggles to find enough drivers via its transportation provider, Durham School Services.
The district and Durham are in the fourth year of a five-year contract – an opportune time, the district said, to look at possible alternatives. The contract costs the district between $10 million and $13 million every year.
During the past year, the national company based in Illinois also has struggled with COVID safety violations while dealing with its chronic staff shortages, leaving school district personnel to fill the gaps.
For that reason, the district also is considering long-term strategies – up to and including running its own fleet for some or all students.
Conceivably, the short-term proposals also could be incorporated into the district’s long-term strategy.
At the top of the list is a proposal to reduce the number of stops. For example, Chase Middle School on the South Hill currently has 51 stops.
The plan would increase route efficiency by reducing the number of neighborhood stops and creating larger, centrally located gathering locations “deemed safe and accessible.”
Currently, students served by buses walk an average of one-fifth of a mile from home to their bus stops. The proposal would increase that average to half a mile.
A second alternative would increase the gap between pickup and drop-off times for all students.
Currently, high school classes begin at 8 a.m., elementary school at 8:30 a.m. and middle school at 9 a.m. That timeline has been in place for several years, but Durham has struggled to meet those windows.
The district is considering starting routes sooner – 20 minutes earlier for high schoolers, 10 minutes for elementary students and five minutes for middle school.
The process would work in reverse in the afternoon, with middle-schoolers returning home up to 15 minutes later than they do now.
However, the plan might require more supervision at schools as some students will spend more time in buildings.
Yet another proposal would involve a partnership with STA to provide more high school students with bus passes. However, some neighborhoods lack easy access to routes, and the district would need to address potential risks of students riding with the general population.
The final short-term proposal would explore alternate options for students in Choice Programs, including those at the Libby Center, Montessori, Pratt Academy and Apple.
Also affected would be students served by Excelsior as well as those served by Express programs.
The board may also discuss long-term proposals, including an “evaluation of proposals and contract models,” as well as consideration of full or partial in-house transportation.
The latter might take the form of some co-op model with surrounding districts, though it’s unclear how that might work with similar bell schedules.
Live and remote public comment on the topic will be taken during Wednesday’s meeting.
Editor’s note: The headline of this article was changed on April 12, 2022 to fix incorrect information. The original headline incorrectly said one idea for fixing busing problems would be to start high school at 7:40 a.m. Although that plan does suggest picking up high school students who take the bus 20 minutes earlier, it would not change the time school starts.
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