Updated: August 28, 2011 at 12:00 am
A month into the school year, Falcon School District 49 says it is working the bugs out of its new user-pay bus system.
Some parents, though, remain concerned about how far their children have to walk to bus stops and the traffic jams as buses and carpoolers drop off and pick up students.
“Things appear to be better,” said parent Alys Hammer. “I know younger students are being picked on by older students” at bus stops, she said.
District officials say that the new system given them more flexibility to deal with problems, and bus routes and stops were adjusted frequently in the opening days of the school year.
“As more people pay for ridership, the more stops we can make and the more convenient we can make it,” said Cindy Hardin, D-49 transportation chief.
The cost for riding the bus to and from school is $2 a day. Students eligible for free or reduced meals still ride for free.
Bus routes have been changed and bus stops have been combined, making for a longer walk to bus stops and a longer ride for some students in the 133-square-mile district. That allowed bus service to be expanded to include charter school students and those who attend a school outside their attendance area. Students of all ages ride the same buses.
The district on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs has about 14,700 students. Of those about 6,500 were eligible to ride buses and about 4,800 rode the buses daily.
Hardin has said about 3,000 paying riders are needed to break even and, as of Friday, there were 2,723 riders signed up, said D-49 spokeswoman Stephanie Wurtz Meredith. There were about 1,450 on board less than a month before classes started Aug. 1.
In the first days of the school year, traffic was delaying buses. Parents said main roads, especially in the eastern portion of the district, were at a standstill before and after school.
Schools are rethinking traffic flow and bus schedules and stops have been adjusted as needed, Hardin said.
“Traffic is bad at schools no matter what,” she said.
During the first week of August, many parents left complaints on the district’s Facebook page. Safety was the chief concern, with comments saying the old bus stops were safer for kids. Another issue raised was about the amount of time kids spent on the bus, with some kids riding for as long as an hour.
Hammer said parents would pay for the old system, which she feels was safer and better for kids.
“I’m hoping that something can be done to bring back our bus stops,” school board secretary Tammy Harold said at a special board meeting Aug. 24.
One parent said the new system was an improvement because it offers more transportation options to more families.
“Before, we didn’t have an option,” said Tori Martinez who lives in the Springs Ranch neighborhood, too close to schools to be eligible to ride the bus in previous years.
Her 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son ride the bus home every day. Although they are riding for about an hour because of the bus routing, Martinez said it’s a lot safer than having the kids walk, and cheaper than placing her son in an after-school program.
Students within walking distance of their schools can pay the fee and ride the bus. Many charter school students have signed up for service, Hardin said, the first time transportation was available for them.
“I happen to be in the minority where it’s working out,” Martinez said.
A self-supporting bus system has allowed the district to use its $3.5 million annual transportation budget for other programs and services. As part of the change, 19 bus drivers lost their jobs.
Board President Dave Martin and board Vice President Chris Wright voted against the changes. The policies were unanimously approved again Wednesday, with board member Rusty Moomey and Martin absent.
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School districts are not obligated to provide transportation, except to special education students. Many districts around Colorado charge for rides, including Woodland Park School District RE-2 and Douglas County schools.
Academy School District 20 has looked into setting up a fee-for-service, but decided against charging this school year. The district did change about 18 bus routes.
Everyone who had transportation before still has it, said D-20 Spokeswoman Nanette Anderson, adding that the changes were made to make the system more efficient. Bus stops were moved and some kids are now using different stops. So some students are walking a little bit farther, and others actually have a shorter walk, she said.