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D-49's fee-based bus service far from break-even point

July 9, 2011

Only about half the riders needed to cover the cost of busing in Falcon School District 49 have signed up with the new fee-for-service program with less than a month before school starts.

Officials said they are working to get more students – who must pay $1 a ride this year — and hope to have the required numbers by the first day of school on Aug. 2.

As of Thursday, about 1,450 students had signed up to pay for service, said D-49 Transportation Director Cindy Hardin.

About 3,000 riders are needed to break even, she said.

“We’re doing everything we can to make people aware of the change,” Hardin said, adding that she is concerned that many aren’t aware of the changes spurred by school board decisions in recent months. Information has been sent to all families in the district.

The Transportation Department will host an open house 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. July 23 at the bus yard. There will be entertainment for kids, and information on service and routes will be available.

Those who choose to get to schools by bus will experience quite a few changes as part of a plan to cut transportation costs and generate savings.

Students will pay $2 a day to ride the bus to and from school; students eligible for free or reduced meals will not have to pay.

Changing traditional bus routes to a combination of circuit busing and corridor busing will centralize bus stops, increasing some walk distances and ride times in the 133-square-mile district. That allowed service to be expanded to include charter school students and those who attend a school in a different attendance area. Also, students of all ages will ride the same buses.

The district on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs has about 14,700 students. In previous years, the district had about 4,800 bus riders daily, and about 6,500 were eligible to ride.

In January, the school board voted to cut regular bus services for the 2011-12 school year and seek proposals to resume service at a reduced cost to divert the roughly $3.5 million transportation budget elsewhere in light of state funding cuts. Three companies submitted bids and the D-49 transportation department offered its own plan.

In late April, board members voted to reinstate the Transportation Department as fee-for-service operation with no budget other than the money necessary to bus special education students. At the time, no funding was mentioned to cover necessary start-up costs.

Board Vice President Chris Wright said Friday that the transportation department has received all the resources Hardin said she needed. If the department can’t meet obligations, then other options are on the table, such as going back to the companies who bid on service, he said.

“If it doesn’t fund itself, it won’t happen,” said board Secretary Tammy Harold

When asked how and when the district would decide if the new system was not working as promised, Wright said it was a decision that the entire board would make, adding that the transportation department deserves a chance to make it work.

If it’s not working, Harold said, the department should come to the board with possible changes. It’s a hard decision because the larger number of families who don’t use transportation would prefer funding go to classrooms.

“How do you balance both sides?” she said.

Other board members and D-49 Chief Business Officer Brett Ridgway did not return phone calls.

Hardin had said at several meetings earlier this year that it would cost about $97,000 to shift to a fee-for-service approach and estimated that the department could be self-sufficient by the second year, depending on ridership.

Hardin said last week that it cost about $77,500 to make the services changes, including the installation of card readers on buses and contract with a company to allow parents to pay for rides online as is done with food service.

Parents have asked why they should pay for service when, in many instances the kids have to travel farther to get to stops, Hardin said.

Even with students having to walk a little farther, or parents having to drop them off at stops, taking the bus will still save families time and effort, she said. Even students within the walk distance, currently greatest for high school students at 2.5 miles, may take the bus if they pay.

Some students will have multiple chances to catch a bus, depending on when they need to arrive at school. For example, at least four buses will serve the Vista Ridge Zone. District officials urged parents to check school start times for their students before classes resume Aug. 2. A complete list is posted on the district website.

One change that has fueled parents’ concerns is that students of all ages will potentially ride the same bus. Some students will also have to transfer buses to reach their school.

Hardin said students will be divided on the buses, so elementary students will sit with other elementary students at the front of the bus, middle schoolers in the middle and high school students in the back.

“I feel very confident that the drivers will keep the students safe,” Hardin said. “We protect the kids from bullying.”

She said it’s fairly common for some districts, especially rural ones, to have a mix of younger and older students riding the same bus.

“Many of them do that to save transportation costs,” she said.

For the most part, it will be older students who would have to transfer buses, Hardin said.

Such points will be at schools, and drivers won’t drop students off until their next bus is there.

Stops for elementary students will be associated with animals, and their designated animals will be on their bus cards.

A $40 deposit is required to start transportation service, which also covers rides for the first month. A $20 balance for rides is required. Every time a student rides, the charge will be deducted from the prepaid account.

Contact the writer at 636-0162.

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