Superintendent Responds to Bus Concerns

Superintendent Responds to Bus Concerns

The following letter by Superintendent of Schools Patrick K. Murphy was addressed to Arlington Public School families.

I want to acknowledge that as we have been preparing for the start of school, all of us – School Board members, staff and I – have heard from many families with their concerns about the transition in our Transportation Services.

I regret the confusion some families have experienced and want to assure you that we are working to address and respond quickly to the many questions and concerns that have been raised. As many of you are aware, we have found a few errors in our route planning. I want to assure you that we are working to correct any errors through the appeals process as quickly as possible. Families affected by these changes are also being notified.

As noted in my July 9 letter to APS families, a critical step in our Transportation plan is serving students who are eligible for bus service in accordance with School Board policy. I recognize that notifying you recently of specific changes for your child’s eligibility for the bus service has been disruptive to some families.

The primary focus of this transition has been to ensure the safety of our students. This means we need to know who is on the bus, and to ensure that our buses are not overcrowded, especially in the face of our growing enrollment needs. We also need to focus on improving on-time service to and from schools.

For the first time ever, this year we have been able to provide each school with a list of each student’s bus route and arrival times. This is information we were not able to provide in the past because we did not know which students were riding on each bus. Now, if there are bus delays, we can contact just the families of the students who ride a particular bus. This new system will also ensure that we avoid having too many or too few students assigned to a bus.

Scope of the Transportation Adjustments

Many families have asked about the extent of the changes being undertaken. I think it would be helpful to provide some background information on the scope of this project and our transportation program.

APS has 1,783 bus stops each morning across the county plus approximately 450 additional stops for students with special needs. This year, approximately 14,000 students (about 60 percent) are eligible for bus transportation. We also have approximately 9,000 students (about 40 percent) who reside within their school walk zone. Factoring in our continuing growth in enrollment, these numbers reflect the same breakdown of “riders” and “walkers” as in previous years.

In total, we have removed 12 bus stops that were located within the walk zone area at five schools. This change is an issue for approximately 250 students. Also, on some routes we have condensed two or three stops into one to limit the numbers of times a bus has to stop along a route to improve students’ on-time arrival at schools. In other areas, we have added stops to decrease the number of students waiting at a stop.

What are the standards and how are decisions made?

Our policy standards have not changed. The School Board’s Transportation Policy has always said that, “Safe transportation to school will be provided at public expense to transport students Pre-K through Grade 12 living beyond a one mile walking distance from elementary schools and a one and one-half mile walking distance from middle and high schools (property line to property line).”

APS has and continues to use the following standards for walk zones:

  • For elementary students who live in their school’s “walk zone” who may need to cross a road at some point with help, crossing guards will continue to be provided. In some cases, students must walk part of the way to reach the crossing guard location where they can receive appropriate supervision to cross and continue their walk to school.

  • For secondary students living in “walk zones,” we look to see if crosswalks, traffic and crossing lights, or other pedestrian supports are available along those routes.

Elimination of “Walk Backs”

It has become apparent that some families were not aware that their student lived within the “walk zone” and were actually “walking back” to get on a bus. We estimate that approximately 1,000-1,500 students “walked back” to get on a bus, resulting in overcrowded buses with students sometimes standing in the aisles.

With our growing enrollment, this practice has caused continued overcrowding on many buses. More importantly, this meant that we did not have an accurate list of the students riding buses, which has been a serious safety concern. Consequently, we can no longer accommodate “walk back” students on our buses.

Walk Zone Maps

The walking maps previously displayed online had been developed by the County in 1997 and 1998. While they were intended as aids in planning routes to school, they did not accurately depict the boundaries of the official "school walk zones." In addition, some of them did not reflect other traffic changes for their communities. We have been working to update the maps to reflect individual communities more accurately. We will re-post them as soon as they have been revised.

Process for Appeals

As with any transition, there are details to be ironed out, and we are working through that process now. We have received approximately 100 appeals as of today. While some appeals are focused on bus stops that were moved or eliminated, the majority of appeals are due to the elimination of “walk backs.” As we receive the appeals, we are immediately processing them and following up with the families as soon as possible. For walkers, this includes close examination of the student routes and distances to walk to school. It is our goal to resolve as many of these as possible prior to the start of the school year.

In addition, as we work through the appeal and discover that an error has been made, we scan that neighborhood area to see if there are other students who may have been similarly affected and we are reaching out to those families, even if they have not made an appeal.

Collaboration and Other Options

School principals are also exploring a number of alternatives to support the increasing number of walkers. These include providing school aides to organize and lead Walking School Buses in communities where they may be needed, reviewing carpool drop-off solutions to minimize the impact of traffic around schools, and reviewing the placement of crossing guards to ensure adequate support for students in the community.

Preparing for the Start of the 2012-13 School Year

As school begins, we know we will experience delays or find further adjustments that need to be made. This has occurred with Transportation Services every year as we begin school, and we expect that this year will be no different. As has been our experience in the past, we expect most adjustments will be finalized by mid-September.

I want to encourage everyone to continue to talk with your students about safety measures they should take when they are out in the community, and school principals and staff will also continue to reinforce these same messages.

Please continue to let your principal know if you have questions, and we will continue to update you about those issues in the coming week as we work to prepare for the start of school.