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Some older Spokane Public Schools students will walk farther to catch bus next year as board addresses driver shortage

UPDATED: Thu., April 14, 2022

Durham School Services drivers hang a help-wanted sign on a bus on July 23, 2020, at Joe Albi Stadium. On Wednesday, April 14, 2022, the Spokane School Board approved plans aimed at solving some of the district’s busing problems caused at least in part to a shortage in workers.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Durham School Services drivers hang a help-wanted sign on a bus on July 23, 2020, at Joe Albi Stadium. On Wednesday, April 14, 2022, the Spokane School Board approved plans aimed at solving some of the district’s busing problems caused at least in part to a shortage in workers. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Some Spokane high school students will walk farther to catch rides next year after the Spokane School Board adopted several strategies to address chronically late buses.

Following a lengthy discussion Wednesday night, the board voted unanimously to move ahead with several suggestions, including fewer bus stops and longer walks to school for middle and high school students.

The board also directed staff to explore a possible partnership with Spokane Transit Authority for the transportation of high school students and look into alternative options for certain choice and option programs such as the Libby Center and Express.

The only option that won’t move forward is a proposal for earlier pickup times before school and later drop-off times in the afternoon.

The plan would have improved efficiency, but at the cost of more supervision at schools as some students would spend more time in buildings.

“That’s not going to work,” board member Riley Smith said.

The conversation around transportation is driven partly by a chronic nationwide shortage of bus drivers. Spokane Public Schools, which contracts with Durham Schools Services, has been plagued with late arrivals for most of the year.

The district and Durham are in the fourth year of a five-year contract, which has cost the district between $10 million and $13 million every year. A possible change will get more attention later, but Wednesday’s discussion was limited to next year.

“This is sort of a necessary evil to do most of these things, but it will be an improvement over this year,” board President Michael Wiser said.

The board considered delaying a vote but approved the other strategies.

“Any guidance we can give staff, the better,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.

The biggest change will be an expansion of the district’s “walk boundary” for middle and high school students. Currently, students without special needs who live within a 1-mile radius of their school are not eligible for transportation. That radius will grow to 1½ miles but not for elementary students.

Some board members were concerned about increased student exposure to neighborhood hazards such as traffic and crime, as well as inclement weather, but the district plans to explore options to mitigate both issues.

District staff also pointed out that the new walk boundary still will be smaller than in many comparable districts. For example, Seattle Public Schools has a 2-mile boundary for high school students.

Students at all grade levels will be affected by a decision to reduce the number of overall stops at the district. For example, it was noted that Chase Middle School now has 51 stops.

According to district statistics, students eligible to ride the bus walk an average of two-tenths of a mile to their stops.

Documents shared Wednesday night claimed that increasing walk distance to stops to a half-mile “will eliminate underutilized stops, increase efficiency and on-time arrival.”

The latter issue was a major concern for the 677 people who participated in a district-sponsored Thought Exchange.

“There was much comment on arrival times,” Swinyard said.

The idea of a partnership with STA intrigued board members, but many details must be addressed. Some high school students live in areas not served by public transit; others would need to change buses downtown, lengthening their commute.

The district and STA are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss those and other concerns around student tracking, safety and ridership rules.

The final short-term proposal would explore alternate options for students in Choice Programs, including those at the Libby Center, Spokane Public Montessori, Pratt Academy and APPLE Programs at Franklin and Garfield elementary schools.

Also affected would be students served by Excelsior, as well as those in Express programs.

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