School Bell Changes: The Best Solution for Late Buses?

Hillsborough County School District has explained over the last month that bell schedule changes are needed to get kids to school on time.  This is different than other comments that have been provided in the past around why buses are late.  It sounds reasonable that a short elapsed time contributes to late buses, but we continue to not hear how other causes are being addressed by the district. The question is how much is each potential cause contributing to late buses?

On Feb. 22, 2016, Sarah Rosario at ABC Action News published an article titled “Parents fed up with late or canceled buses in Hillsborough county” 3 in which she reports concerns from parents about late school buses in Hillsborough County and the response from a representative of Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) about the reason for late buses.

Gibson Consulting Group, Inc. (Gibson) performed an Educational and Operational Efficiency Audit for HCPS and documented reasons for late buses in their Phase II Report.

According to Marlene Sokol at the Tampa Bay Times “…the district is paying [Gibson] $818,000 to find ways to save money.” 2

Two specific reasons discussed by Gibson that contribute to late buses are:

1) Bus driver absenteeism, vacancies, and substitutes (1, p. 141), and

2) Bus overnight parking location (1, pp. 150-152).

The importance of the second reason, overnight parking location, is not at first obvious; and there are many unintended consequences associated with that reason that are discussed in more detail in the Gibson Phase II Report.  These reasons are explained below along with some items identified by Gibson needed to fix those problems.

Bus Driver Absenteeism, Vacancies, and a Lack of Substitute Drivers

Gibson explains a logical reason for late buses, where a combination of vacant positions, absent drivers, and a lack of substitute drivers work together to cause late buses.  These three components involve the management of staffing and HCPS policies.

“Accordingly, there were not enough drivers to fill all 980 route assignments, and there are no extra drivers to fill routes when drivers are absent.”  (1, p. 138)

Gibson also estimated the number of bus driver vacancies amounted to “…approximately 95 school bus driver positions…” (1, p. 141) and noted the bus driver absentee rate is “high” (1, p. 140).

The following quote explains what happens when absences occur.

“When bus drivers and attendants are absent, the route has to be assigned to another bus driver (who already has an assignment). This means routes operate behind schedule and students are not delivered to school timely.” (1, p. 141)

Gibson provides recommendations toward resolving or alleviating these two problem areas identified in the report; are those recommendations already being implemented to help reduce late buses?  It might make more sense to implement those changes prior to implementing a bell change to assess the impact it has on alleviating late buses.

Overnight Bus Parking Locations: Offsite of Transportation Facilities

Gibson Consulting Group, Inc. provides an example with some quantitative data regarding bus driver absences and how combined with parking location together cause late service.  An offsite location as discussed here is when a bus is parked anywhere other than an official HCPS transportation facility where bus maintenance crews are located and buses can be parked.

“For example, in May 2016, Area 6 had 38 occasions when a driver who parked at home or a remote school was absent and the supervisor had to find a replacement driver and bus at the last minute, often resulting in late service for the student riders” (1, p. 152). The proposed HCPS solution of changing elapsed times will not address this issue at all.

Of particular note is that there are nine areas, so how much of an impact is it on students when you look at the influence of that problem on all nine areas?  A question that arises is how many times did absences combined with parking location result in late arrivals, and what is “often”? That seems to be a convincing reason for a cause of late bus arrivals, and does not seem resolvable with an increase in elapsed times alone.  Elapsed times should help reduce the number of drivers and buffer delays.

Why Does Where a Bus Gets Parked Overnight Matter?

There is quite a long list of problems that arise from buses being parked at home or away from a HCPS transportation facility.

Gibson explains that in “…2015 the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) was invited by the district…to review the Transportation Department.”, and

The CGCS reported that unsecured bus parking lacks sufficient control, reduces security, increases liability, invites potential worker compensation claims, creates service delays caused by inoperable buses, increases maintenance costs due to logistics of shuttling buses to/from remote sites (schools, homes), and exposes vehicles to vandalism. (1, p. 151)

Because transportation facilities have mechanics and spare buses available, when buses won’t start or have a mechanical issue (at the beginning of their route) they can be provided a spare bus if they were parked overnight at a facility. (1, p. 152).

Gibson explains how this practice does cause delays: “…and road calls delay the driver from making on-time pick-ups at bus stops. If the bus is declared out of service by the mechanic, the route is further delayed…” (1, p. 152).

Can Overnight Bus Parking Issues be Resolved?

Three problems are identified to parking all buses at a transportation hub, according to Gibson they are:

  • a lack of parking capacity at transportation facilities, and
  • a contract provision allowing for some bus drivers to park away from a transportation facility, and that bus drivers without that contract provision are allowed to park at home when requested (1, p. 153).
  • Lastly, Gibson’s estimate to build the two recommended transportation hubs is $8.4M to $14.2M (1, p. 153-154).

As Hillsborough County continues to grow more schools will be needed, and logically more buses.  A reasonable conclusion is that without correcting the parking requirements and transportation facility capacity, costs associated with the unintended consequences of offsite parking will continue to grow if more buses are parking offsite.

According to Table 5.10 there were only 209 buses parking overnight at transportation facilities and 760 drivers parking offsite of a transportation facility (1, pp. 149-150).  There appears to be room for improving the number of buses parked onsite at transportation facilities overnight by about 200 buses; almost 24% of the total capacity is unused according to some calculations applied to numbers in the Gibson Phase II Report.  It seems that could help alleviate some of the late arrivals resulting from parking offsite.  How far will that go to improving late buses; will it resolve 50% of late buses, 70%, 10%?

Conclusion

The 80 minute gap proposed between high school and elementary school start times seems to allow ample time to find a driver when an absence or other problem occurs, but pushes high school start times earlier and elementary start times later in what has the appearance of an attempt to mask the problems of driver absenteeism, driver vacancies, availability of substitute drivers, and overnight parking at non-transportation facilities.

It is really hard to know for sure what will alleviate the impact from those causes without knowing the data and logic that substantiates the HCPS implication that increasing elapsed time will deliver students to school on time.  It would be helpful to know more than buses don’t have enough time.  It seems reasonable to first implement recommendations around alleviating the problems noted by Gibson and then consider increasing elapsed times.  Knowing whether any of those recommendations were implemented would provide some degree of comfort that late bus causes are being addressed.

Has long-term historical mismanagement of finances and inefficient operations caused students to be placed in a situation where they are faced with bell schedule changes because the district is now out of funds to fix other causes of late buses?  It would seem possible, based on the information available, that one reason student bell schedules are being changed is to create a larger buffer in elapsed times to compensate for late buses because the investment in new parking facilities, staffing, or changing employee contracts is not desirable.

1Gibson Consulting Group, Inc., Phase II: Operational Efficiency Audit – Comprehensive Report for Hillsborough County Public Schools, https://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/docs/00/00/17/86/HCPSGibsonPhaseIIFinal_Report.pdf

2Marlene Sokol, “Hillsborough school times will remain the same for 2017-18 but could change the following yearTampa Bay Times, 4/12/2017, http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/hillsborough-school-times-will-remain-the-same-for-2017-but-could-change/2320593

Sarah Rosario, “Parents fed up with late or canceled buses in Hillsborough county”, ABC Action News, 2/22/2016, http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/hillsborough-regional-news/parents-fed-up-with-late-or-canceled-buses-in-hillsborough-county

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