'Waiting for a ride': Dickinson Public Schools seeks to improve busing
The Dickinson Public Schools and school board are examining the accessibility and efficiency of the busing the district provides to students and hope to present possible changes by March for implementation next school year.
"We feel like there might be a better avenue of broadening our services and helping meet more needs of our kids and parents," said Superintendent Shon Hocker, "and that's what our study is really going to be focused on this winter."
Amanda Wright is the router and dispatcher for Harlow's School Bus Service, which provides school buses to the district. She said that in in 2010, the school district had just eight bus routes. Busing was not provided to students who lived in town, unless the children had special needs. Seven of the routes went to rural areas. In 2014, Harlow's started providing busing in town for middle schoolers. There are now 28 bus routes.
Still, there are plenty of students who cannot ride the bus. These students live in a restricted zone, which spans between States Avenue and 10th Avenue East and between Villard Street and the interstate.
"Every night, if I leave at five o'clock, there's still a dozen kids in the high school that are waiting to get picked up because they're in the restricted zone," said Kevin Hoherz, principal of Dickinson High School. "They can't ride a bus. They're still hanging around the school ... waiting for a ride from their parents."
Part of the reason for the restricted zone, Hocker said, was the lack of neighborhood attendance zones. Prior to this year, parents could send their students to whichever school in the district they wanted, regardless of where in the district they lived. This year, fifth-graders were allowed to continue to go to their school if it was outside of their attendance zone. Next year, all students will go to their assigned school. Hocker said this will make it much easier to transport students.
"We can assign some buses to pick up everybody in that zone and bring them to Jefferson," he said. "We could even assign different buses to pick up kids and take them to the middle school and different buses to take them to the high school. We could do all of that within the zone."
Hocker said they would like to get rid of the restriction zone in favor of smaller, localized zones.
"We will probably have restrictions within a certain radius of each school," he said. "If you're to go to Berg, if that's your attendance zone, then if you live within 'X' amount of blocks from Berg, maybe you don't get to ride a bus, but if you live outside of that and you're still in that zone, you do."
Changing the bus routes in this way should help cut down on the amount of time students spend both waiting for the bus and riding the bus. Currently, some students wait as long as 45 minutes for the bus to arrive and as long as an hour and a half riding the bus, Hocker said.
With the efficiency of new bus routes, Hocker said they will also consider allowing students who attend the local private schools to ride the bus.
Currently, the students who can and do ride the bus must pay $180 a year for the service. Last spring, the school board introduced the idea of dropping the fee. However, doing so would create financial concerns.
"The district would have to try to figure out creative financing ways to overcome not only just the loss of revenue from not charging for people to ride the bus, but it's likely that if you provided a free busing service, you'd have a lot more riders, and therefore, more buses, more bus drivers," Hocker said. "How do we pay for that, if we've chosen to do it free?"
Now, instead of potentially eliminating the charge, the school board is considering offering free or reduced pricing for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"We do want to put together a program, a package that would help out those that need help, whatever that might be," said Hocker. "Ultimately, we want to make sure that they have a relatively seamless way to get to school and focus on school and be excited about going to class, not be fretting over whatever the fees might be to ride a bus."
All of these ideas may help increase the number of students who ride the bus.
"We want to make sure we have a system in place that would allow anybody that wants to ride the bus to get on that bus and create more opportunities for our patrons than less," said Hocker.