School officials look to cut costs without trimming bus routes

By Carolyn Cole
Published on July 24, 2008

Mustang school buses burned through more than $12,000 per week in diesel fuel in May, and with prices still climbing, officials are looking to juice more miles out of each dollar spent.

There are no plans to cut bus routes or cancel school activity trips, a move recently taken by several Oklahoma districts to save money. Transportation Director Mike Brown said instead officials are updating route maps, tightening bus stops and trying to make the most of each trip.

“It is my hope that in doing that, maintaining it — it will reduce miles,” he said. “It will reduce time, it will reduce load problems and in the process save fuel.”

As Mustang households cope with rising fuel prices, Brown said school officials are seeing more children riding the school bus. More than 4,000 students ride the bus each day school is in session, and the district’s buses travel 51 routes, or about 581,000 miles in the 2007-2008 school year.

Fuel costs for last school year reached $335,000, an increase of $98,000 from costs in the 2006-2007 school year. A 77-passenger school bus averages about 4.5 miles to the gallon.

While state law doesn’t require school districts to provide transportation, Brown said parents expect it. School districts do receive some reimbursement money for youth they transport who live more than 1 1/2 miles from school, but Brown said the rate hasn’t increased in years — long before fuel prices skyrocketed.

“The actual costs far outstrip whatever we get from the state,” he said. “The district has to plan to move forward without much help.”

Society has changed since state officials enacted the 1 1/2-mile reimbursement policy, and Brown said school officials realize it isn’t realistic or safe in most cases for young children to be expected to walk that far to attend class. For example, Pebble Creek apartments are within that radius from Mustang Elementary, but Brown said children could not cross state Highway 152 or other heavily traveled roads safely.

“In Mustang, we are going to do what is best for kids,” he said.

However, Brown said that does not mean bus drivers can drop children off at their front doors. In some cases, he said drivers have made special accommodations for families, but they will now be asked to follow routes specifically because each additional stop uses more fuel and time.

“We are taking out duplication,” he said. “We are also taking out unnecessary stops and letting routes back to a logical format.”

If the district’s buses are going to run more efficiently, Brown said the route information has to be accurate.

Last school year, Brown removed access to the district’s computerized routing system from the Internet because he found maps out of date and the times for bus stops were unpredictable.

Keeping up with growing neighborhoods in the Mustang School District is almost a full-time job. He said department workers receive calls several times each month from parents who have moved into a new housing addition that isn’t on the district’s maps. Brown drives the neighborhood, maps it and adds bus stops for new students.

In June, Mustang School Board members approved a transportation clerk position, which will help keep the route database accurate. He said he plans to link the system to the district Web site before school starts Aug. 20.

Routes are not carved in stone, Brown said, adding he expects to make some adjustments based on the number of youth who are waiting at bus stops. Elementary school routes are assigned for about 70 students, he said, with the understanding that it is rare for every youth to climb on board each day of school.

“For us to get the best use of equipment and fuel, we will reroute that bus and have it do other things in order to get the full benefit,” he said.

School buses are also used for transportation to student activities and field trips. Brown said teachers followed the one field trip per grade rule closely last school year. He said officials are aiming to not cut services to students.
“I am quite sure we will continue to operate those activity trips so those kids can continue to benefit,” he said.

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