By Krysta Huber
Every weekday, more than 1,600 students ride buses throughout Rockbridge County, requiring nearly 50 different bus routes to shuttle them to and from school.
One Maury River Middle School sixth grader, who cannot be named because of a school policy, explained the route she takes home from school in the afternoons.
“I get on the bus at Maury River Middle School around 3:15 p.m. From there we go to Rockbridge County High School and I switch to the bus that goes straight to Fairfield Elementary School,” she said. “I transfer buses at Fairfield and that bus takes me home; I’m home usually by 4 p.m.”
With a county measuring 600 square miles, the Rockbridge County School district runs an extensive transportation system to accommodate just over 2500 students, who attend six different schools: Rockbridge County High School, Central Elementary School, Fairfield Elementary School, Maury River Middle School, Mountain View Elementary School and Natural Bridge Elementary School.
As Supervisors for Transportation, Kirstie Campbell and Randy Walters face their fair share of complications.
Winter Weather Woes
[pullquote]“Years like this year where the winter has been filled with snow and ice, it seems like every morning it’s an early morning to get up and try to make a decision about school,” Walters said. “And it’s probably the decision that we catch the most complaints and criticism about because we either miss days where people think we should be in school or we should’ve closed but go to school.”[/pullquote]
Walters, who is also an assistant principal for Rockbridge County High School, said snow and cold weather present the biggest challenge for organizing school transportation.
On days when inclement weather is expected, Walters, Campbell and Rockbridge County Schools Superintendent Jack Donald begin working as early as 4 a.m. to assess road conditions and decide whether to close the schools.
Walters is responsible for making calls to agencies like the Virginia Department of Transportation, The National Weather Service and the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, to decide whether bus drivers can travel their assigned routes safely.
“Years like this year where the winter has been filled with snow and ice, it seems like every morning it’s an early morning to get up and try to make a decision about school,” Walters said. “And it’s probably the decision that we catch the most complaints and criticism about because we either miss days where people think we should be in school or we should’ve closed but go to school.”
Walters said the size of the county further complicates the decision to close schools.
Bus 51, which services some students who live in neighboring Nelson County and pay tuition to attend Rockbridge County Schools, often has different weather conditions from other routes.
“There are times when our buses can’t make it up to the top of the mountain,” he said. “So those kids choose to stay at home for that and we mark them as an excused absence.”
Donald said that the county’s rural landscape is also a factor in evaluating the weather. He said that while buses are generally safe vehicles, the narrowness of some back roads makes traveling in the inclement weather more dangerous.
“Some of them are no more than a lane to a lane and a half wide,” Donald said. “So you don’t want to put a bus in a situation like that if there’s at least a little bit of a chance of the bus sliding off the road or somehow being stuck.”
Closings and Consolidation
In the last four years, budget constraints have pushed the Rockbridge County School Board to close and consolidate two schools: Effinger Elementary School, which closed in 2010, and Rockbridge Middle School, which closed in 2013.
Bus 51 also services students who live in the Fairfield area of the county. The middle school students on this bus would have gone to Rockbridge Middle School had it not closed. These students said that their trip is now about 15 minutes longer each way.
Walters said that the number of students who transfer buses increased since Rockbridge Middle School closed.
Donald said bus transfers were implemented to reduce the time added to the trip. Some of the transfer buses, which Walters and Donald call “shuttle buses,” go directly from one school to another.
“You’re shortening some of the run because you’re picking up kids differently,” Donald said. “You’re only lengthening a little bit of the run because you now have to go from point A to point B but that’s without stops.”
Walters and Campbell said that by incorporating the shuttle buses, bus routes that would have increased by 30 to 45 minutes only increased by about 15 minutes.
“That was one of the things that at the time of the consolidation I remember the superintendent talking to me about,” Campbell said. “He wanted to make sure the kids were comfortable getting to and from their new school.”
[pullquote]“On a daily basis we scramble to find more bus drivers to cover all of the routes that we have in Rockbridge County,” he said. “We’ve hired a few more trainers to train other people to be bus drivers and that seems to have helped.”[/pullquote]
After the weather, Walters said the second biggest challenge in school transportation is having enough drivers. He said it is difficult to find substitutes who have the appropriate license to drive a bus in the area.
“On a daily basis we scramble to find more bus drivers to cover all of the routes that we have in Rockbridge County,” he said. “We’ve hired a few more trainers to train other people to be bus drivers and that seems to have helped.”
Campbell, who has a commercial driver’s license, said she fills in as a substitute driver daily. She said that the hours required of a bus driver aren’t attractive to some.
Hours vary depending on which route a driver is assigned. Most buses leave around 7 a.m. and are finished by 8:15 a.m. But drivers for the routes in Goshen, a town about 25 miles from Lexington on the northwest side of the county, leave at 6:15 a.m. to begin picking up students. In the afternoon, drivers begin picking up elementary school students around 2:45 p.m. and finish their second run for middle and high school students by 5 p.m.
“We’ve had a few moms join us this year because it works for their schedules,” she said. “But with the lack of drivers, it’s unusual if I don’t drive at least four times a week.”
Walters said because substitute drivers aren’t considered full-time employees, they don’t receive the same benefits as full-time contracted drivers.
“The pay level and benefits of course is always a factor in whether people are going to come to work for you or not,” he said.
Donald acknowledged that the county has reduced its contracted drivers to the lowest possible number. But he said a reduction in the number of drivers means a savings in the budget. And with the consolidation of a few schools, some routes were eliminated. Because of this, the county was able to eliminate several drivers’ positions.
There are 42 contracted drivers eligible for full-time benefits and an additional six bus drivers who drive regularly but aren’t contracted. Donald said the county had about 53 drivers five years ago.
“If I can reduce 10 drivers at $15,000 a year— and if they had health insurance with us, that is another $4500-5000— then that’s a significant reduction,” Donald said.
The total savings of reducing 10 drivers is about $155,000.
[pullquote]“Occasionally we’ll have a call from a parent that an elementary student picked up something from a high school student, whether it be language or whatever the situation was,” Campbell said.[/pullquote]
Because a student’s bus route is organized based on where he or she lives in relation to his or her school, students of all ages can travel together on the same bus. Campbell and Walters said that some parents have raised concerns about this environment.
“Occasionally we’ll have a call from a parent that an elementary student picked up something from a high school student, whether it be language or whatever the situation was,” Campbell said.
Several parents with children in a Rockbridge County School were contacted for this story, but none were willing to comment on student transportation.
But Walters said concerns have waned since the county improved the camera systems on its buses. Thirteen new camera systems were recently installed to record the front and rear of the bus, as well as the driver’s seat and the exit door.
Although many buses already have camera systems in place, the newest cameras have improved audio technology so that administrators can clearly hear what students are saying.
“Students know that the cameras are there,” Walters said. “So that has really eliminated a lot of the behavior issues and discipline issues that we had with middle and high school students riding with the elementary students.”
The sixth grade student at Maury River Middle School said she thinks some students have quieted down because of the cameras on the buses, especially those who sit in the back. But even with the cameras in place, she said she prefers to sit at the front.
“I don’t like sitting back there because some kids don’t say nice things,” she said. “Even though the cameras are now at the back of the bus, some kids just don’t care about what they’re saying.”