Some St. Mary’s County middle school students will walk farther to catch the bus, sometimes in the dark, during the next school year.
The changes are intended to save money through more efficient bus routes. They were outlined Wednesday but did not require a school board vote because they are essentially just bringing bus runs in line with existing policies.
The policy already states that high school and middle school students may have to walk up to a mile and elementary students up to a half-mile to a bus stop.
In addition, Maryland regulations state that school bus stops should be approximately one-quarter of a mile apart.
The school system’s transportation department this school year changed some high school bus stops, resulting in some students walking up to a mile from their home to catch the bus. Last year, school officials said that changes in bus stops for high school students would be followed by middle schools and then elementary schools the following two years.
“Some of the challenges, the same as last year, is we will have a lot of parents” calling in citing their disapproval of the changes, said Jeff Thompson, director of transportation.
He said, though, that the transportation department received fewer calls than he expected at the beginning of the current school year.
School board member Cathy Allen said that while the change to high school bus routes may have been relatively smooth, altering middle school routes starting this summer could cause more resentment because the students are younger and the school day starts early.
She said that during much of the year, middle school students catch the bus before sunrise. Classes at three of the four middle schools start at 7:20 a.m.
“This is a concern,” Allen said.
She urged middle school parents to collaborate with other nearby parents to help ensure the safety of their children as they walk along neighborhood roads in the dark.
“We are going to be more cautious when we are evaluating the bus stops” for middle school students, Thompson said.
For the most part, children will not be expected to walk long distances on major roads in the county but instead be expected to gather at bus stops where side roads or developments intersect with the major roads, Thompson said.
Thompson outlined several examples of the potential new bus routes, which would eliminate bus trips down some side roads and save thousands of dollars.
For example, cutting out short runs into the Arrowhead and Maple Run neighborhoods off Indian Bridge Road would cut out 11 miles per day, or about 2,000 miles a year. “That would save us ... about $2,400 a year by doing that [based on $4 per gallon]. And that’s just one small section” along Indian Bridge Road, Thompson said.
In another example, Thompson said the school system could save about $1,600 by eliminating 7.3 miles a day to pick up students down Collinwood Drive or Robert Lacey Road in Abell.
Thompson told the school board that they and all school employees and bus drivers will have to enforce the policies if the changes are to work. There will still be a procedure in place for parents to request changes to bus routes, but there will need to be extenuating circumstances for such exceptions to be granted, he said.
Thompson said last year the changes to high school routes eliminated about 300 miles of bus routes a day and could save $65,000. He estimated elementary school changes, to be put in place in 2013, would save even more. The transportation department has a proposed budget next fiscal year of $15.2 million.
Thompson said he also plans to put to better use a new bus routing system that will assign mileage to bus drivers and calculate more efficient routes.
He said that the public school system does not plan to print bus schedules in The Enterprise newspaper before the start of the school year, as it has in the past, but instead will make routes available to parents only via the school website.