Just as numerous and colorful as the first-day-of-school photos that were posted on Loudoun County Facebook pages in the past 24 hours were complaints about overfilled buses, late drop-offs, and crowded stops.
After a rocky start to last school year because of a severe bus driver shortage, school system leaders had said this year would be different. In May, the Transportation Department told the School Board that big changes were coming. They had been working with consulting firm Edulog Logistics Inc. and a new software system to consolidate bus routes, reduce lengthy rides, and maximize bus space—all with the goal of improving the level of service to Loudoun students.
That same month, the board agreed to push start times at four middle schools and every high school back 15 minutes to give the transportation leaders more flexibility in planning bus routes.
Transportation leaders told the School Board that, by consolidating bus stops, the county’s 394 bus routes could be reduced by as many as 45. That would make it so the average run time for each route could be decreased from 23 to 17 minutes. Buses were not being fully used; they found that the average head count on buses could be increased from 38 to 52. The new plan is also estimated to save $1.5 and $2.9 million annually.
“All the routes this year will be different,” Assistant Superintendent Kevin Lewis told School Board members at a committee meeting Aug. 3. “We want you to get fewer calls on that first day.”
But parents and drivers reported that yesterday’s first day of school was fraught with problems.
The consolidated bus stops mean fewer stops in neighborhoods. Families said they were given no heads up that their children would be asked to walk further—in some cases as far as a mile—or that parents are expected to deliver their children to their stops.
“The whole county’s up in arms about this,” said Susan Ackman, who lives in the Brooke Stream Manor neighborhood in Purcellville.
Her neighborhood’s two bus stops have now been consolidated into one, at the corner of Oakridge Hamlet Place and Telegraph Springs Road. “They’re narrow, unmarked roads with no sidewalks. What happens when it snows and it’s been plowed? Are the kids are just supposed to walk out in the middle of the road?” she said. “It’s a major intersection where the site limits are very limited. It’s just not safe.”
The change in routes had some kids with earlier pick-up times and others arriving home close to 6 p.m. “I’ve decided to skip the transportation issue and drive him to school,” one parent posted on Facebook.
The bus ride for Karin Eanes’ daughter from south of Bluemont to Blue Ridge Middle School is expected to be 96 minutes one way, 30 minutes longer than it was last year.
“When they told me that, I couldn’t believe it. She’s a seventh-grader,” Eanes said. “I think some people’s routes got better, but it feels like we’re the sacrificial lamb.”
In an emailed statement to Loudoun Now, Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said the “route-optimization study period” began in the summer of 2016 and will continue through this fall and winter. “As the ridership adjusts within the first few weeks of the year, numerous changes will be made to the routing,” he said. “The primary focus of the study was the pressing need to improve services to students as well as addressing a driver shortage, which is a nationwide problem. … This is an ongoing process. LCPS will continue to collect data and develop routes and stops as the school year develops and ridership changes.”
After hearing from a slew of angry parents and drivers this week, School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said he wants the board to review the transportation policy again at its Sept. 12 meeting. Specifically, he wants to reverse the School Board’s decision last year to remove parents’ ability to formally appeal a transportation decision to the full board. Board members in favor of that change wanted senior staff members to oversee concerns about routes and bus stops as part of day to day operations.
“I intend to move that the Loudoun County School Board reinstate parents’ ability to appeal bus stops,” DeKenipp said. “At the end of the day, if we’re going to solve our transportation issues with a scalpel, the appeal process will provide an opportunity to review concerns carefully. This is especially true when it comes to matters related to safety.”
He added, “As I stated in the fall, I’m not willing to sacrifice safety in the name of effectiveness and efficiency.”
School leaders have debated for years ways to improve how the county’s roughly 50,000 bus riders get to and from school. Several years ago, they cut bus service to about 2,000 students and increased “walk zones,” in large part to cut costs during tight budget years. Now, most elementary students living within 1 mile of their school do not get bus service, and most middle and high school students living within 1.25 miles of their schools do not receive bus service. As part of that effort, they also secured funding through the Safe Routes to School program to improve crosswalks and sidewalks to encourage more students to walk or ride bike to school.
Transportation leaders said a shortage in bus drivers was the main culprit for longer bus rides last school year. To attract and retain drivers, the division ramped up recruitment efforts, increased drivers’ pay and improved their benefits.
As of today, the division is short 20 drivers. Progress has been made on this front. At the start of last school year, the division was 89 drivers short.
Of the need for more drivers, Transportation Director Michael Brown said earlier this month, “The recruitment is going well. We’re on our way to solving this problem.”
Families are asked to report their concerns through an online portal at webinter.lcps.org/ConcernRegistry.