CRARYVILLE–Come September, Taconic Hills Central School District, which owns and operates its own fleet of buses, will adopt a single-bell system, meaning that all students traveling by bus will arrive and leave at the same time instead of in two shifts 45 minutes apart.
The change–in the works since 2008–was instituted to save money and resources, and to unify the school around one starting time and basic schedule. Administrators also expect it will make scheduling easier both for staff working across elementary and middle school grade levels, and for parents with students in different grades.
“It’s been talked about for a long time,” said Middle School Principal Neil Howard. “The current financial situation pushed it to the forefront because of the significant savings to the district.”
Dr. Howard said part of the change involves reassuring parents that mixing older and younger age groups on buses will not create problems. The mix already occurs on the late buses without problems, he said.
Buses that had carried only one age group will now carry all ages, kindergarteners through seniors. The district has said on its website that younger children will be seated together and teens may be recruited as bus mentors. District buses carry video cameras that record all trips and that may act as a deterrent to any mischief or conflicts that might result from the spread in ages.
“Having older kids on buses with younger kids may prove to be a help; they are more responsible. We’ll keep a very close eye on it,” said Dr. Howard.
Last year a new system of bus discipline was instituted that counted the number of verbal warnings given by a driver to a student. A certain number triggers the issuance of a yellow warning card followed by a red card after further warnings. Students who receive two yellow and one red card face a three-day suspension of bus service, and that has gotten parents’ attention, said transportation director and former district school board member Richard Viebrock. “The ability for a child to ride on bus is not mandated, and if a child misbehaves too much, they might get suspended from school as well,” he said.
Another initiative new this year is “The Peaceful School Bus,” a program that comes with video instruction developed by educators at Lynnwood Elementary School in Guilderland and used as part of Taconic Hills’ current anti-bullying initiative. It focuses on each bus as a community unto itself. At regular intervals students in each bus community meet in a classroom with their driver and teachers to discuss pertinent issues. The process is designed to empower students to think of solutions and respect bus drivers, placing the drivers on an equal footing with the rest of the team.
Addressing the financial impact of consolidating the bus runs, “It’s hard to quantify the amount of money that we’ll save,” said Mr. Viebrock. But he predicts substantial savings at the beginning and more in future.
The school website says that the district will save 30,000 gallons of oil with the new system. At the current diesel rates of $2.00 to $2.50 charged by the state of New York, which provides school districts with fuel at wholesale prices, the district could save $60,000 to $75,000 on fuel alone.
At a school board meeting last March two members of the public warned the school board that they would have trouble keeping bus drivers who might not want to work reduced hours because they would not add up to enough time for them to qualify for health insurance. But no one has quit, said Mr. Viebrock.
At the same meeting in March, board member Robert McComb said that the district never had a two-bell schedule before the completion of the new school and that there never were full buses on routes since the institution of the two-bell schedule. “It never should have been done. We promised a one-bell system when we built the building,” he said.
“Now, we’re delivering,” said Mr. Viebrock in a phone conversation on Tuesday.
This year, the district was told it would lose $2 million in state aid and enrollment has dropped from 2,200 when the school opened in 1999 to 1,520 students. In order to cut costs the district had to let go 50 teachers and aides ahead of the new school year.
Under the new system, buses will load faster and will run closer to full. They will drop students at school at 8 a.m. and depart at 2:40 p.m. Sports buses heading to games will leave at 2:50 p.m. Late buses to take students home after sports or activities will leave the school at 3:40 and 5:15 p.m.
The school transportation department has hired four new drivers and an outside contractor to handle some of the more far-flung areas and is redoing all its routes. The logistics could be hardest part of the change.
“It’s an effort, but it’s not horrible,” said Mr. Viebrock. “The hardest thing is for employees to accept fewer hours. Over the years, this work evolved from a fill-in job until it became, with markets declining, a job that some depended on as a sole means of support. We have to come up with a mix that is good for the district, but we’re trying to make sure that any extra work goes around equally to all the drivers to be fair. We’re trying to do it in a way that has as low an impact on drivers as possible. They are a great bunch of people.”
Figures found on the Taconic Hills website outline the savings the district stands to make. The reduction of 11,704 personnel hours per year saves $137,390 in salaries and $17,811 in benefits. The number of buses and drivers remains around 30, but the number of miles traveled will be cut down to around half, and buses will be running closer to full capacity, carrying 50 when in the past they carried around 18.
From a student’s point of view the best thing about the change might be that no one gets picked up before 7 a.m. anymore. Last year some boarded their bus before 6. a.m. From one coach’s vantage point, leaving at 2:30 p.m., the past departure time for sports buses, hardly provided enough time for kids competing to warm up. She wondered how they will make the new time work.