By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert Public Schools is looking to change the start and end times of all its 40 campuses in an effort to get students who ride the bus to class on schedule.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the two bell-time options presented to the governing board at last week’s work study. A board decision is expected in April for implementation in the 2019-20 school year.

“The bell-time structure that currently exists is the root cause of the chronic performance problems that are drastically impacting families and schools across the district,” said Paul Novak, a consultant tasked with improving student transportation, adding:

“The inability to provide on-time services to students and schools both morning and afternoon are a result of a bell-time structure that is simply designed to fail. Currently GPS’s bell-time structure is not only financially inefficient but results in an unprecedented 66 percent of all elementary buses run late almost every day.”

Transportation Director Paul Potts said between 25 and 35 percent of elementary school students ride the bus, 40 percent of junior high students and probably 25 percent of high school students.

Novak said the district buses serve between 9,000 and 11,500 – about a third of the student population.

“Many of the current problems that are plaguing the student transportation department are beyond the control of the incumbent staff,” Novak said. “The bell times that you currently have evolved over a long period of time and during the rapid and explosive growth of the district and the town.”

The current bell schedule is seriously flawed and doesn’t allow drivers the time to pick up or drop off the maximum number of students on time and move on to the next school, Novak said.

Consequently, more buses and drivers are needed to transport students between their homes and school, resulting in manpower inefficiency, he said.

Novak also blamed the district’s bell-time structure for highly stressed bus drivers and drivers who quit out of frustration.

The district last year saw an unprecedented 32 percent turnover rate among its drivers compared with the local and national rate of about 20 percent, Novak said.

“We see it trending in the wrong direction and what I’ve heard from drivers is the stress level of running late, something beyond (their) control,” he said.

The two options have uniform bell times for junior high and elementary school campuses – unlike the current nine.

Both options would reduce junior high schools’ three different bell times to one and the six for elementary campuses to one. The district’s high schools currently have the same bell time but under both proposals, they would start and end a half hour later than they do now.

Under Option No. 1, buses pick up elementary school students first, followed by high school and then junior high. Option No. 2 picks up high schoolers first, followed by elementary and then junior high.

Under both options, junior high students are the last to be picked up because according to studies they are the most sleep-deprived, Novak said.

The average student ride times for both options would be no more than 25 minutes.

Novak said uniform bell times for each level of schooling would benefit families who may have students going to multiple campuses, programs such as academic, athletic and special-needs and instructional staff in the case of professional development opportunities.

He added it was hard to gather the district’s 20-plus elementary school principals for a meeting when there was a half-hour gap between the first school dismissing and the last.

After the new bell times are adopted, the entire bus routing system would be revamped to optimize all routes.

Novak said an effective route would get as many students as possible on time to school using the fewest buses and drivers as possible.

Both options call for reducing the number of bus routes from the current 138 to an estimated 115. The number of special-education routes also would drop to an estimated 50 from the current 58.

Under both options, the number of bus drivers also would drop to 140 from the current 175. Drivers for special-needs students would be reduced by 20 percent, Novak said.

The number of buses for elementary school students was expected to drop to 65 from 80 because when drivers are given more time, they can pick up more students so fewer buses would be needed, according to Novak.

However, more buses are proposed for junior high and high school pick-ups from 56 to 65 and 51 to 65, respectively.

Novak said the extra buses would shorten the ride time for students and allow for later pick-ups.

Overall, the efficiency realized by the change would allow the district to downsize its fleet to 170 from 257 by getting rid of older buses, Novak said, adding the fleet size currently was way larger than what the district needed.

Board member Lori Woods voiced concerns that elementary students would see their average ride time increase by 8 minutes – which she said was “pretty significant.”

Novak said the average ride time from the first pick-up to drop-off would be no more than 25 minutes and is within normal standards.

Member Jill Humphreys asked how the proposal addressed overcrowded buses.

Novak said the new schedule would build routes over the next four to five months that take into account the bus manufacturers’ seating capacity of 50-52 and a 20- to 25-minute ride time.

Part of the problem is the district’s 25-year-old software system that identifies how many students are assigned to ride the bus, he said. In some cases, 152 students were identified, which was clearly over-capacity for a bus, he added.

“We will build routes to ensure there are no bus stops where students not each have a seat,” Novak said.

Superintendent Shane McCord said savings from the changes will be funneled back to the transportation department to buy new software.

Board President Reed Carr noted the recent state Auditor General report dinged the district for its high spending on student transportation. He asked if the change will help with that.

Novak said the district would see its cost per mile go down significantly.

He said the Auditor General uses a crude method in its calculations and if the district has 250 buses it must have a maintenance team large enough to service those buses. Even if the buses are not being used, they must be maintained for the annual Department of Public Safety inspection, he said.

All that overheard goes into calculating the Auditor General’s report, he said.

“One of the things that was a nice consequence of the change is the bus driver and the bus that go to pick up the children in the morning will be that same bus driver and bus that goes to pick them up in the afternoon,” said Bonnie Betz, assistant superintendent. “So, I can see where in the long run that would create some stability with the kids getting on the bus.

“They will be same bus driver who pick them up in the afternoon, the relationship with the schools as well as the relationship with families, I see that as a very positive consequence of both options, speaking as a parent.”

The district plans to do outreach to the community for feedback on the two options.