Spokane children may have to walk farther to catch the school bus next year, and high school students may have to ride STA buses to class. Those are among the proposals under consideration as Spokane Public Schools seeks to ease its transportation woes.
Driving the issue is a dearth of bus drivers at Durham School Services, which has been busing Spokane students to class and activities for the past 13 years. 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.
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 a special meeting on Wednesday, the district board will hear details on options developed by a district work group on short-term and long-term modifications to its current bussing model.
“It will be an important discussion,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Tuesday.
No decision will be made Wednesday. However, the district is hoping to narrow its choices with an eye toward making a final decision later this spring.
Short-term alternatives for the 2022-23 school year include the following:
- Reducing the number of bus stops, which would mean students walk further for a ride
- Extending the time between routes, which would lengthen waiting times at schools
- Increasing the district’s “walk boundary” from one miles to two miles for secondary students
- Partnering with Spokane Transit Authority for transporting high school students
- Exploring alternate transportation for Choice, Excelsior, Express and other programs
The district work group, which includes teachers, students, administrators and others, also discussed long-term options, including acquiring its own bus fleet and drivers.
It’s also possible that the district could renew its contract with Durham and incorporate some of the short-term proposals into its long-term plan.
“We are looking at other models and what is going to provide the safest, most cost-effective solution,” said Shawn Jordan, the district’s chief operating officer.
Jordan, along with Rebecca Doughty, the district’s executive director of school support services, are expected to explain the pros and cons of each short- and long-term alternative.
At the top of the list is a proposal to 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 recently to meet those windows.
The district is considering starting routes sooner – 20 minutes earlier for high schoolers, 10 minutes for elementary students and 5 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.
A third strategy would expand the current walk zone radius for middle and high school students. That’s how it is done is Seattle.
Expanding the radius from one mile to two miles would reduce bus riders; however, it would require more crossing guards. The district also would need to consider certain neighborhoods and bad weather on longer walking distances.
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 also may 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.