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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools optimistic about transportation after uncertainty over bus setup

Students board Durham School services buses outside Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane Washington.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)

With more bus drivers moving through the pipeline and more students expected to walk to class, Spokane Public Schools hopes to see fewer problems this year getting kids to and from school on time.

On Wednesday night, board members will get an update on the transportation outlook for the new school year, which for most SPS students will begin Sept. 6.

By the end of last year, the district’s carrier, Durham School Services, was down to 85 drivers to service 91 routes.

“When any of the 85 couldn’t work, that just added to the challenge,” said Shawn Jordan, the district’s chief operations officer.

That meant some students wouldn’t be picked up until drivers finished their primary routes, leaving families frustrated.

The picture is brighter this year, Jordan said.

Thanks partly to an aggressive hiring campaign that includes sign-waving employees outside some SPS schools, Durham currently has 97 regular drivers, nine more designated substitutes and 10 more in training.

Another 24 prospective drivers – perhaps attracted by a $20-per-hour starting wage – are going through the application process.

“We are really trying to ensure that the service is reliable and dependable, and delivers students on time each day,” Jordan said.

Durham has another incentive to improve service. The company and SPS are in the final year of a five-year contract, which has cost the district between $10 million and $13 million each year.

The district has explored long-term alternatives to Durham, a national firm headquartered in Illinois. Those include purchasing its own fleet, or sharing one with neighboring districts. Nothing has been decided.

Instead, the district has focused on short-term alternatives for the upcoming year. Its strategy centers on four main initiatives.

The first – earlier registration of riders – already has paid off, Jordan said.

“We have more students registered ahead of the school year than ever before,” said Jordan, noting that routes and stops can be more easily planned.

The biggest change will be an expansion of the district’s “walk boundary” for middle and high school students. Until now, 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, though not for elementary students. The district also plans to have fewer stops, thereby cutting travel time.

Finally, the district is working through the details of a partnership with the Spokane Transit Authority.

Last month, STA approved implementation of a Zero Fare for Youth policy.