Four years ago, Loudoun’s school leaders set out to improve how they get the county’s then-52,000 bus riders to and from school. Their goal was to spend less money on transportation, but to also revamp everything from the department’s staffing, pay, communication and bus routes to ultimately improving students’ experience.
Their plan has hit more than few bumps along the way, with some families upset that students who once rode the bus are now asked to walk. But the School Board heard last week that, overall, the changes are paying off.
Kevin Lewis, assistant superintendent of Support Services, told board members that the school system has saved millions in the past four years by redrawing bus routes, requiring more students to walk, and finding other efficiencies. He pointed to the route-to-bus ratio— the relationship between the number of routes and the number of buses in the fleet—as an indication of improvements made.
In fiscal year 2016, the division’s route-to-bus ratio was one route for every 1.30 buses. This year, that’s improved to one route for every 1.19 buses. The goal is, by next year, to get that ratio down to one route for every 1.15 buses—the industry standard. A route is the driving assignment for one driver with a complete schedule. Lewis said that may include round-trip elementary school runs, round-trip middle school runs, round-trip high school runs, a midday run, and any special runs assigned to the driver.
Already, reining in how many buses the division uses has saved $19.6 million. He expects another $18 million will be saved if his team can reach that one route-per every 1.15 buses by next year.
“We’re happy to report that we’re already making inroads to these goals,” Lewis said.
While the school system has added 3,484 more students—and now has a total of 56,545 students eligible to ride the bus—since 2016, it has actually been able to reduce the number of buses in that time, from a fleet of 815 to 809 mostly because of improved routing.
“We’re using fewer buses to move more students,” Lewis said.
The overhaul to the Transportation Department has been years in the making. In the fall of 2015, after new members to the School Board noticed just how much the school system was spending to transport students to and from school, they got serious about making improvements. At the time, School Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) argued that finding savings in the Transportation Department would free up more money for the classroom.
First, they started enforcing a “walk zone” policy that had been on the books for years but never fully enforced; more students were getting bus service than the policy allowed. They asked staff to now only provide bus service to elementary students who live more than 1 mile of their school and middle and high school students who live more than 1.25 miles from their schools. In that first year, it meant about 2,000 fewer students were eligible for bus rides.
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 bikes to school.
Another big push toward improving bus service was boosting pay and hours for bus drivers to recruit and retain more drivers and fill a severe driver shortage. Transportation Director Michael Brown said earlier this year that those changes all but solved the driver shortage. In early 2017, the school system was about 160 drivers short, and as of the start of the school year, it had about a dozen unfilled positions.
Having enough drivers has meant a better overall experience for students. When the transportation team faced with too few drivers, it meant drivers had to make double runs, picking up and dropping off one bus-load of students only to turn around and pick up and drop off a second bus-load of students. In many cases, that resulted in students arriving to school late or riding the bus for 90 minutes one way.
The transportation team also adopted a new software system to consolidate bus routes, reduce lengthy rides, maximize bus space, and reduce the number of drivers needed.
School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) acknowledged the improvement to the bottom line has come at the cost of putting more students on buses. He asked Lewis, “are students spending more time on the bus overall?”
“We don’t believe rides are longer overall,” Lewis responded. He said improvements to routes are being made every day, especially as a new school year gets underway. “But we believe we have reduced some of those longer runs. There’s always more work we can do, but we do believe we have improved overtime.”
Hornberger, who has been the most vocal proponent of overhauling bus services, commended Lewis for nearing the industry standard. “It’s great to see we are moving LCPS to be more efficient with the transportation resources it has,” he said, and asked if the goal will be an even better route-to-bus ratio than the industry standard.
Lewis said just reaching the standard will be a big win. “Right now, our goal will be to maintain that.”