Due to budget cuts, school districts often must reduce or eliminate school busing for students. This is a very difficult decision to make and because it involves the safety of children, emotions can run high when it is discussed. There are, however, several steps schools can and should take before, during and after school bus cuts happen to ensure that everyone’s concerns are heard, all options are considered and student safety is not compromised.
Cost Cutting Strategies
Budget cuts have forced school districts throughout New Jersey to reduce or eliminate school busing for its students, primarily courtesy busing or non-mandatory busing. Courtesy busing is the transporting of students who do not live remote from their school (less than 2 miles for students in grades K-8 and less than 2.5 miles for high school students).Since these students live relatively close to school according to New Jersey Statutes, their transportation is considered courtesy busingand is not required by or funded by the State of New Jersey.
While eliminating courtesy busing can make sound financial sense for a school district, it is often a controversial topic. Two miles may not seem a great distance to some but most parents cannot imagine their six-year-old child making such a trip unassisted or unsupervised. To ease parent concerns and to assure a continued smooth school transportation process, schools need to take a well-planned and coordinated approach to school bus cuts.
Recently, staff at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center interviewed school administrators that were faced with eliminating courtesy busing and found several strategies that schools can and should utilize before, during and after busing cuts are implemented.
If schools are even considering reducing or eliminating buses, they must plan ahead and communicate changes as soon as possible to the school community. There are some modifications schools districts can try that will decrease costs and increase efficiency without reducing or eliminating busing such as:
- Perform a detailed transportation study to analyze efficiencies such as stops, routes and load times. The study should also assess walking and bicycling conditions both to and from the school and the bus stops.
- Share transportation services with other districts, particularly special education transportation which can be expensive when programs are located out of district. Sharing transportation personnel, school bus facilities and maintenance costs with neighboring school districts can provide substantial savings.
- Change the tiering of buses and have school buses make several runs each day rather than use a separate bus for each run. School start and dismissal times may have to be staggered; however, operating costs can be reduced while increasing efficiency.
- Consolidate bus stops which may result not only in time savings for students and bus drivers but also increased efficiency (less idle time) for the buses. Students may have to walk farther to their bus stop; however, consolidating stops will cut down on multiple stops and travel time, thereby saving the districts money.
Plan Ahead, Communicate Early
Assessing the conditions of walking and bicycling routes to school is critical before bus reductions are made to ensure the safety of student walkers and bikers. Conducting walkability/bikeability assessments and documenting and addressing safety issues mustbe implemented before busing is eliminated.
If busing modifications have already been made and cuts are still needed, busing cuts can be implemented at various levels and stages:
- Get input from the community by putting the question of eliminating busing on the ballot. Residents’ voices can be heard and school districts can make appropriate plans based on the outcome of the vote.
- Gradually increase mileage until the state limit has been reached. Rather than eliminate all courtesy busing, increase the distance a student must live from school in order to receive busing each year so that costs can be reduced and students and parents have time to prepare for possible further bus cuts.
- Eliminate busing for high school students before cutting routes for younger children since many high schoolers are old enough to get to and from class on their own or with friends.
- Eliminate late or extracurricular buses which only service a portion of the student population. Other options are to offer late buses 2-3 times per week instead of daily service or to eliminate field trips which can be subsidized by PTAs and parents.
- Consider subscription or fee-based busing to offset costs as New Jersey school districts are able to charge parents part or all of the costs of courtesy busing.
- Check school district policies to make sure that they encourage safe walking and biking. Schools can have policies which discourage students from walking or bicycling to school even when safe facilities exist for such travel. By changing school policies and procedures to encourage more walking and biking to school, School Boards can play an instrumental role in increasing both the safety and health of their students.
When courtesy busing is reduced or eliminated, short term improvements such as adding crossing guards, painting crosswalks and bike lanes, removing debris and trimming bushes can make a huge impact on student walkers and bikers. Also, holding workshops on pedestrian and bicycling safety is important to educate students and parents on helmet requirements, bike traffic laws, and safe street crossing techniques. Communities could also consider organizing walking school buses or bike trains.
After school bus cuts are made
It is important to continue to build strong relationships with your municipality and to partner with them to plan for major infrastructure improvements such as new sidewalks, traffic lights and signals, and traffic calming devices like pedestrian refuge islands or speed humps. The investment necessary for these improvements will create safer conditions not just for students but for all residents. By encouraging walking and biking, perhaps more cars will be taken off the road, saving energy and reducing pollution in the neighborhood.
Safe Routes to School (SRTS) can assist school districts through the challenging transition of reducing or eliminating busing by focusing on safe alternatives for getting students to and from school. SRTS resources and activities can help communities build sidewalks and bike paths, reduce speeds in school zones, and educate students and parents on the importance of pedestrian and bike safety. Funding is available through the New Jersey Department of Transportation for infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic signals and traffic calming devices.
To read the complete report on Effective Practices to Confront Courtesy Busing Cuts, please click here.