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Good-bye to Big Yellow Buses?

Budget woes turn some schools toward local public transit systems

April 7, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary L. Howe
  Some Traverse City students use public transit for school, but most ride the district’s system.
Betty and Robert Dunham sure know how to take care of kids.

The Kalkaska County couple raised seven of their own in rural Oliver Township and photos of their grown children still hang on their living room wall.

But in addition to their own children, the Dunhams also have another family of kids: the dozen or so neighborhood youths who congregated every school morning in their driveway to catch the bus to school.

“They are all great kids, and when they were in my driveway, they are my kids until they get on the bus,” Mrs. Dunham says.

But the bus they boarded was not a big, bright yellow one. Instead, the junior high children gathered every morning at the Dunham home—and other, similar places around the county—were part of a unique program that relies on the Kalkaskas Public Transit Authority’s (KPTA) buses to get kids to and from school.

By assembling them in designated pickup spots and using public transit buses to pick them up, Kalkaska Public Schools was able to get out of the transportation business, save some serious money, and spend it instead on education. So far, the move has saved Kalkaska schools millions of dollars in transportation costs over the last 13 years and, at the same time, allowed the Dunhams to continue doing something they truly love: helping out children.

“It’s worked very well,” Mrs. Dunham said of their participation in the program, which they had to discontinue when keeping their driveway snow-free became too difficult for the older couple. “Excellently.”

Kalkaska’s decision to use public buses to get kids to and from school once seemed radical. Today, however, the program is one of a handful in the state that are attracting attention from other school administrators in Michigan forced to make extreme budget cuts. Several administrators are now navigating a complex maze of laws in order to use public transit buses to transport kids, keep teachers in the classroom, and save taxpayers money.

“It could be mutually beneficial to everyone involved, if no one runs afoul of state and federal laws,” said Paul Larrousse, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Boulstein School of Planning and Public Policy.

“It can be examined for the purpose of different government units working together to provide the most economical service for taxpayer, because it’s all public money when it comes down to it,” he added.

Betty and Robert Dunham volunteered for years to let kids gather in their driveway, for pickup by Kalkaska’s public transit service.
Credit Gary Howe
How It Works
In Kalkaska, the district pays a set fee to KPTA and avoids maintaining its own buses and paying its own drivers.

The school district identifies specific pickup and drop-off spots, such as the Dunham’s driveway, for the kids. The district and KPTA then develop coordinated bus routes, making access as convenient as possible for parents and students. The district and KPTA rely on volunteers like the Dunhams to monitor bus pickup spots, while parents are responsible for getting their kids to those stops.

KPTA delivers roughly 450 kids a day, and the school district pays about $80,000 a year for the services—a fraction of what would be their transportation budget. Parents who live in Kalkaska proper pay $10 every 20 days for one-way trips to school, or $15 every for two-way service. Students outside of town ride for free.

“Our drivers are trained as well as school bus drivers, as far as I’m concerned,” said Ron Kea, KPTA’s coordinator. “We do all our criminal background checks on bus drivers through the FBI.”

Some other Michigan school districts are following suit—or considering it. For example, Baldwin Community Schools, in rural Lake County, adopted Kalkaska’s approach nearly 10 years ago. And Dr. Thomas Moline, of Royal Oaks Schools, said his district would eliminate its transportation services next school year and use a similar model; his district must cut nearly $5 million from next year’s budget.

How We Got Here
But there are plenty of legal and policy obstacles to installing such a program, school officials say. The biggest is that public school busing has long been an “expected” service in Michigan, even in most urban areas—and over the years rules reinforcing that perception grew thicker than a grammar textbook.

One reason is that Michigan was for so many years The Auto State. As support for public transit declined there steadily after WWII, support for public school busing grew. That was particularly true in the spread-out suburbs, where an easy walk to school usually does not exist, and where both dad and mom are commuters. So, most suburban school systems developed district-funded busing.

Meanwhile, many Michigan counties developed minimal public bus systems for their non-driving residents—seniors, disabled, and low-income populations. These public systems are also tax-funded, but their chronic underfunding limited their service level, meaning that they are not widely ridden. Gaining more public financial support for them has proved difficult because their patrons were not from politically powerful groups.

So Michigan communities intentionally developed these two separate, publicly funded systems—one for school children that is very good at transporting students—and one for disenfranchised non-driving population. A myriad of complex rules and regulations developed to protect each system’s minimal resources.

And, all these years later, many parents are surprised to learn that schools are not required to provide “free” rides to school on big, black and yellow buses.

Today, school districts that bus students must meet a host of rules and regulations meant to protect the safety of the students, and assure that all students needing a ride receive equitable service.

And public transit must be truly “public”—it cannot provide service to only one group, such as students, or seniors, or people headed to a casino who don’t want to drive home—and exclude others. This law protects private charter bus and taxi services from competition with public systems.

Now, the complexity of these regulations makes merging the two systems difficult.

“Basically, a public transit agency cannot provide (dedicated) school bus service; they can only provide school trip service which is (also) open to the general public,” explained John Drury, project manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Passenger Transportation.

In other words, dedicating a public transit bus route solely to students violates Michigan law.

Michigan is not exceptional: The Federal Transit Administration also specifically bars transit systems from providing exclusive services for just school kids. The FTA has published a specific outline for what is and isn’t allowed on the issue to help school districts and communities better understand their options.

Roadblock Ahead: Parental Fears
Such restrictions quickly collide with what may be the biggest roadblock of all to shared busing: Parents concerned about the safety of their children—both getting on and off the bus, and riding with adults they do not know.

Paul Soma, who directs TCAPS’ transportation maintenance and operations, sees immense challenges to proposals for using the Bay Area Transit Authority, or BATA, his region’s two-county public bus system, for school kids.

Mr. Soma, whose district buses about 4,500 students a day, is especially concerned about the prospect of strong parental resistance to mingling adults with school children.

“One of my largest concerns shoots right to the question of (child) safety,” Mr. Soma said. “I know that there is a segment of our society out there that, for good reason, are kept away from children.”

He said TCAPS actually experimented with eliminating transportation for high school students and turned to the region’s public busing system about 10 years ago. The measure saved roughly a half-million dollars annually, but the experiment still flopped. Many parents were unhappy with it, he said, and the service operated too slowly.

He does see room for efficiency and cost improvements in the district’s transportation system, and perhaps commingling equipment between TCAPS and BATA, which serves Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties.

“Perhaps what we ought to do is look at consolidating and coordinating transportation between all school systems,” Mr. Soma said. “Perhaps one entity could provide that service. I see that as a separate challenge than solving the public transport issue.

“Maybe there are some other ideas,” he said. “Maybe from 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., when all the kids need to get to...school, the buses are used for students. Starting at 8:30, those buses are used for public transport. I’m open for dialogue.”

Ready to Try It
Meanwhile, in Suttons Bay, a tiny Leelanau County village on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, north of Traverse City, School District Superintendent Michael Murray has his eye on Kalkaska’s success.

Mr. Murray is working with BATA to see if Kalkaska’s program can be replicated in Suttons Bay. He says cutting the district’s annual transportation costs of $600,000 a year to bus 350 to 400 kids a day deserves serious consideration: If he doesn’t cut busing costs, he may have to lay off at least seven teachers.

“We’ve been trimming staff, trimming support positions, trimming from the budget, and we’ve been getting all the energy savings we can get out of our buildings, and we are still to the point where we have to make drastic program cuts and increase class sizes unless we take the money from somewhere else,” he said. “Our mission is to educate students, and I see about 7 percent of our budget going to getting the students to and from school.”

“The response (from parents) pretty generally is, they understand why we are doing it,” he said. “They would rather have transportation changes than classroom setting changes.”

Tom Menzel, executive director of BATA, thinks public busing of students could work in Suttons Bay and elsewhere.

“The core charter of the education system is to educate children in the classroom, and the core charter of transportation is to move people from point A to point B,” he said. “It would allow both of those organizations to maximize resources.

“In major urban areas, kids ride with adults all the time...it’s very common,” he said. “It requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, but it’s something that, quite frankly, is going to have to take place because more massive (funding) cuts are coming, so we have to take a look at our infrastructure and how we are utilizing it.

“I understand what some parents’ reaction will be, and we are going to make several overtures to show them this it really is safe,” he said.

Veteran journalist Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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