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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Schools working a deal for free STA bus rides for high school students

A student is silhouetted boarding a school bus outside of Lewis and Clark High School last fall.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Officials from Spokane Public Schools and Spokane Transit Authority are optimistic that more high school students will be able to use public transportation next fall, free of charge.

That in turn could help the school district cut costs as it looks toward alternatives to its contract with Durham School Services.

During a meeting Wednesday night, school board members heard the details of a proposed partnership that would allow students living near existing routes to take STA buses to their high schools.

Many details must be worked out, including STA board approval of a zero-fare policy for youth, adjustment of school bus routes for students outside public transportation corridors, and communication with students and families.

“The agreements are being drafted, and there are things we will have to finalize and move forward with,” said Corey Arkle, who oversees transportation for the school district.

As part of a $3 billion transportation package that the Legislature approved in March, transit agencies that implement free fare policies for youth age 18 and under, by Oct. 1 of this year, will receive state grants to help fund the programs.

According to a statement posted on its web site, STA is “exploring policy changes to allow more youth to ride with zero fare.”

Karl Otterstrom, chief planning and development officer for STA, took board members through a school-by-school summary of what that service might look like.

The presentation included maps marking the home of every SPS high school student and color-coded zones showing how long it would take them to reach their schools.

Otterstrom also summarized the challenges for students at each high school.

For those attending Shadle Park High School, most of the area is well-served and students within the attendance area will be able to make all transfers in north Spokane.

However, since many students in the Indian Trail Neighborhood will continue to attend North Central High School, STA may need to add another bus for that route. Also, there is currently no service for SPS students in the Nine Mile Road and Northwest Terrace area.

Students at Rogers High School may have the best situation with all but those east of Market Street and north of Euclid Avenue currently served by STA.

Students in the Minnehaha Neighborhood and east of Freya may still need yellow school bus service.

North Central students will be well served, mostly because of boundary changes going into effect this fall that move the Indian Trail Neighborhood into the Shadle Park attendance area.

But students from the East Central and parts of Chief Garry Park will have to transfer buses at the STA Plaza, or continue to ride school buses provided by the district.

Service for Lewis & Clark High School students would be eased by the school’s proximity to the STA Plaza. However, those living in Latah Valley, Eagle Ridge, Hatch Road Hill and the Grandview/Thorpe Road neighborhoods would still need yellow school bus service.

The Ferris attendance area is perhaps the most challenging, with large numbers of students living in East Central and in rural and semi-rural areas in the southeast extremity of the district.

Plans call for STA to explore adding a route serving Eighth Avenue.

However, the Carnahan, Glenrose, Palouse Highway and Ben Burr neighborhoods would remain with yellow school buses.

The proposed partnership is one piece of a larger strategy being considered by the district, which is in the fourth year of a five-year contract with Durham.

The contract with Durham, a national firm headquartered in Illinois, costs $10 million to $13 million annually.

It’s been a bumpy ride lately, partly because of the pandemic but also due to Durham’s handling of the crisis. Problems have included COVID safety violations and chronic staff shortages.

It’s unclear whether the district would eventually consider purchasing its own bus fleet, as other districts have done.

Last winter, a district-appointed committee studied several short-term solutions for the 2022-23 school year.

Cost-cutting strategies under consideration include fewer bus stops and longer walks to school for middle and high school students.

The district also is exploring alternatives 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.