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District 65 is reviewing its 154 bus routes to see if they can be reduced or reconfigured for efficiencies in time and money. At the Dec. 7 Finance Committee meeting, Board members reviewed recommendations from the administration and agreed that these recommendations would be discussed at a January Board meeting to allow further community input before voting at a later meeting.
The two recommendations are 1) to expand the walk-routes to four schools and 2) to increase the walking distance to bus pickup sites. The results would be that more students would walk rather than ride a bus to school and students who would continue to ride a bus might have to walk a block or two farther to the bus pickup site.
A related issue – and one that was brought to the table for initial discussion only – is how and to what extent the District will or should continue to provide after-school transportation to child-care centers to children who do not go home after school.
Superintendent Paul Goren offered a framework for the discussion, saying the District has been “working with our providers to improve services over the past year, to make fewer stops and make transportation more efficient.” Feedback about bus transportation services provided by the District “ranges from ‘poor’ to ‘slightly better than poor,’” he said.
Dr. Goren said the District considered changes in bus service last year, “but I pulled back on that because I wanted to see … how we could minimize the impact while paying attention to concerns we have about quality and service.”
A Dec. 7 memo from Dr. Mary Brown, assistant superintendent of business services for the District, suggested that walking routes for four schools be expanded and walking distances to pickup sites be increased, so fewer students would be bused, bus routes would have fewer stops, and three bus routes could be eliminated.
In addition to being concerned about the long bus rides, the District must consider the budget and uncertainties in Springfield and try to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, Dr. Goren said
Dr. Brown provided information about the State law on busing by public schools and on the District’s busing policy: “The Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/29-3) requires certain school districts, including District 65, to provide free transportation to students living 1.5 miles or more from their attendance area school. The school code also permits districts to transport students living in hazardous areas that are approved by the Illinois Department of Transportation.” “Hazards” for school children are for the most part areas without sidewalks, requiring students to walk long distances in streets or roads, and intersections without one or more of the following: traffic lights, crossing guards or four-way stops.
While the District would still bus students who live 1.5 miles or more from their school, administrators have identified changes at four schools, which, if approved by the Board, would result in the elimination of three bus routes – two at Lincoln School and one at Kingsley School – and save the District about $120,000 annually.
Proposed Changes to Walk Zones
There are 864 eligible bus-riders and 596 actual riders in the Kingsley, Lincoln, Orrington and Walker attendance areas, according to Dr. Brown’s memo. A total of 190 of these students would be able to walk to school if the walk-routes were expanded, reducing the likely number of riders to 406.
Expanding the walking routes would eliminate bus service for 67 students from Kingsley, 18 from Orrington, 88 students from Lincoln and 17 students from Walker elementary schools, according to information from the District.
District staff reviewed the “hazards” identified by the Illinois Department of Transportation along expanded walking routes, to see if those hazards still exist. “During this process, it was determined that some current hazards no longer meet IDOT criteria, due to the presence of stop signs, adult crossing guards, or reduced traffic counts. … Updating the IDOT hazards for these areas means that the walk areas of these schools will be expanded and students living in these areas will no longer be eligible for transportation,” Dr. Brown’s memo said.
The District proposes the following changes to the walk zones of Walker, Orrington, Kingsley and Lincoln Schools. Administrators said there are no IDOT-identified “hazards” in these areas and they believe the children can safely walk to school on the prescribed routes.
Walker Recommendation: 17 children affected, one bus route eliminated.
Walker School’s Area 1, north of Foster Street in Skokie, “has been a bus route due to hazards. However, we can’t find an IDOT hazard on record for that neighborhood,” Dr. Brown said.
There are no sidewalks in the area north of or south of Foster Street, yet the students living north of Foster Street are bused and those living south of Foster Street walk to school. Both groups walk through the same neighborhood. The District proposed to extend the walk area to include students living north of Foster Street. That would mean that 17 children would no longer be eligible for “hazard” busing.
Dr. Brown said IDOT has a score sheet to evaluate the safety of students walking to school in streets, which assesses the distance the students have to walk in the street, the posted speed limit, and the traffic count when children would be walking. She said the scores for that area are low enough for IDOT not to consider the walk zone “hazardous.”
“Have you asked whether that area would be getting sidewalks?” asked Board member Suni Kartha.
“We will talk with officials in Skokie,” said Dr. Brown.
“Are there other areas where kids have to walk in streets?” asked Board member Claudia Garrison.
Dr. Brown said some Lincolnwood School students have to walk in the street, but that area does not qualify as an IDOT hazard.
Orrington Recommendation – 18 students affected, no bus routes eliminated.
Although the recommendation is that 18 students in Orrington Area 2 walk to school rather than be considered eligible for “hazard” busing, the total number of bus routes needed to get students to Orrington would remain at three.
Kingsley Recommendation – 67 children affected.
The District proposes to eliminate bus service in Kingsley Areas 2 and 3, thus eliminating one bus route. Two other bus routes would accommodate the remaining 82 children eligible for busing.
Several parents from Kingsley School spoke against the proposed changes, saying that eliminating the bus route would increase vehicle traffic at Kingsley, which is already crowded during drop-off and pickup times.
Robyn Stark said, “Eliminating bus service for some students will impact the safety of students at school, because so many parents will have to drive.” She said she has career experience in creating walkable communities and “the rule of thumb is to walk a quarter of a mile” – or perhaps a half mile to something larger, like a train station. “I’m really surprised that IDOT would use a mile and a half,” she said.
Ms. Stark said her first-grade daughter would not function well if she had to walk a mile to school. “She’s exhausted and can’t function well the times we tried it. I would be driving her.”
Bridget Nelson said there are about 30 kids from 20 families in the McCullough Park area that would be affected by the elimination of bus service. “It would not be efficient for us to carpool; our group would add about 15 cars to that mess,” she said.
Lincoln Recommendation – 88 students affected, two bus routes eliminated.
With the crossing guard at Main Street and Chicago Avenue, there is no IDOT-identified hazard, so the District is recommending eliminating all bus service to Lincoln School. If the recommendations were implemented, the school would essentially become a walk-area school, Dr. Brown said. There are six children who would still need to be bused because of programming, and she said the District would look into the possibility of those students’ using the special education bus, “if there is space available and if it is appropriate.”
“You talk about saving money but now you have to do more because of six kids,” said Board member Omar Brown.
Meg Krulee, the teachers’ union representative, asked, “Do parents at Lincoln know about this possible change?”
Board member Candance Chow, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the principal had communicated some of the information to the PTA, but there had been no direct communication to parents.
Ms. Krulee said it could be “challenging and difficult to notify parents” at Lincoln School.
Terri Shepard, former District 65 Board member and grandmother of a student at King Arts, said, “I listened to all those parents, and I assume they all have children that do exactly what they’re told to do. They’re going to walk where they’re supposed to walk. They’re going to listen to the crossing guards. I don’t know that all kids do that. They will find shortcuts. … Lincoln kids are likely to take the shortcut at the Mulford viaduct to Chicago Avenue and walk on Chicago.”
Walking Farther to Bus Pickup Sites
Increasing the number of blocks that students can walk to a bus pickup site would reduce the number of stops and the length of the ride. The present policy allows children in kindergarten and first and second grades to walk one block to a pickup site, and students in grades 3-5 to walk two blocks.
The recommendation is to increase each walking distance by one block, so the younger children would walk two blocks and the older children, four blocks, to a bus pickup site.
Although the District does not typically bus middle-school students, Dr. Brown said administrators plan to continue busing Chute Middle School students who live in the Walker School area. Most Chute students walk less than 1.5 miles to school, Dr. Brown said. The bus would have only two or three stops.
Dr. Goren said administrators had rejected the hub-and-spoke idea of dropping kids off at schools and having them picked up there by another bus, because the different start times would interrupt the school day.
Board Comments – Money
“The idea behind this is saving money?” asked Mr. Brown. “We could do more, but we’re looking at saving money – is that right?”
“It’s saving money; it’s also thinking about the routes – they have been so long. Routes that are packed with too many stops and that affects the efficiency of the routes,” said Dr. Goren.
“Eliminating six routes out of 154 – that doesn’t seem like you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck,” Mr. Brown said.
“It may not be a huge cost-saving, but there may be time saved. …The immediate cost savings is $120,000; secondarily there is improving on-time arrivals and reducing the time that kids spend sitting on buses,” said Board member Candance Chow, who chairs the Finance Committee.
“Every penny counts. I’m sure we all l understand that,” said Board member Jennifer Phillips, “but we are looking at $120,000; out of a $110 million budget, that is only 1%.”
Dr. Goren said, “Understand that over the next five years between $3 million and $12 million will have to be reduced from our budget, so the question is every reduction counts. Non-class reductions as opposed to [reducing] essential staff is where the trade-off is. Part of what we’re doing is putting on the table a very difficult set of trade-offs.”
Assistant Superintendent of Schools John Price said $120,000 is two teachers’ salaries or half the cost of the summer program. “One hundred twenty thousand dollars is real money.”
Mr. Price added, “My question to the Board – trying to be responsive to the current Board policy and current IDOT hazards: Is there a change to IDOT hazards or Board policy that the Board would want us to take a look at, if we’re looking to save more money? And what might those changes be?”
Mr. Brown said, “You should come to the Board and say, ‘Here’s what our model says. Here’s our potential savings’ – as opposed to bringing us this. … We would like to have a proposal … Take a step back and look at the big picture. Take a look at all 154 routes and run that through your test model and come back with your proposal: ‘Here’s what we’ve done; here is what we think the outcome is. Let’s discuss it.’”
Fees for Bus Service?
Some Board members posed questions about whether the District could offer bus service on a paid basis, if bus routes were eliminated.
Ms. Chow said one of the difficulties is ascertaining how many people would pay, since bus fees are waived for students eligible for free lunch and are reduced for children eligible for reduced-price lunch.
Dr. Brown said the District had not broken out the demographics for Lincoln School students who might be affected by the proposed changes.
“If a route costs, $40,000, and there’s only one child, that’s an expensive bus route. If we have room on the bus anyway, that would be a different story – we could offer the ride for a fee,” said Mr. Brown.
“There certainly are districts in our area that have fee-for-service; they tend to be wealthier districts,” said Ms. Chow.
Next Steps – the Test Site
The “model” to which Mr. Brown was referring is a computer program that the District will have available at some point to help calculate the number of bus routes needed if the proposed recommendations are approved.
“We will put our current student data into this test site – take the eligible kids who we know are riding, and reroute them,” said Dr. Brown. “Then we could see, ‘Could Kingsley mange with its two buses?’ We think they can. ‘Will Orrington still need three buses?’ We think they will. This test site that does routing will enable us to get a look at what the bus routes would look like and the length of the bus routes,” she added.
Jordan Ryan, transportation coordinator for the District, said, “I think the primary function of the test site will be to just give us a better estimate of the efficiencies, but as far as numbers are concerned, I don’t know that the test site is necessary for that. At Walker [the proposals] would take six of the nine stops off the route. The primary function is to ascertain the timing and length of the route.”
“To summarize,” said Ms. Chow, “the efficiencies are not known, and it is not known how soon the test site will be up. There is concern with congestion and traffic at Kingsley and with the viability of fee for services for eliminating riders or bus service.”
The Board’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Jan. 25.