Springfield Public Schools brought in two consultants and examined numerous bus routing options to try to narrow the gap in school start times down from an hour to 45 minutes while also serving a growing number of passengers.
Without finding and hiring an additional baker’s dozen of bus drivers in the midst of a workforce shortage, the best SPS could do was 50 minutes between start times, as John Mulford, the district’s deputy superintendent, explained to the school board during Tuesday’s study session.
Proposed start and end times for schools in each of the three tiers
Citing a growing number of students who are eligible to take the bus to school at a time when driver shortages persist, Springfield Public Schools officials outlined a three-tier set of start times for the upcoming school year.
Tier One (7:20 a.m. – 2:20 p.m.)
20 elementary schools: Bingham, Cowden, Delaware, Disney, Field, Gray, Holland, Jeffries, Mann, McBride, McGregor, Rountree, Sequiota, Sherwood, Sunshine, Truman, Twain, Watkins, Weller and Wilder
One intermediate school: Wilson’s Creek
Two K-8 schools: Hickory Hills and Westport
Three magnet schools: AgAcademy, Academy of Exploration, Wolf
Tier Two (8:10 a.m. – 3:10 p.m.)
All high schools: Central, Glendale, Hillcrest, Kickapoo, Parkview
All early childhood centers: Campbell, Fulbright, Shady Dell, Mallory
One magnet school: Academy of Fine and Performing Arts
Alternative center: Study
10 elementary schools: Bissett, Bowerman, Boyd, Fremont, Harrison, Pittman, Robberson, Weaver, Williams and York
Tier three (9 a.m. – 4 p.m.)
All middle schools: Carver, Cherokee, Jarrett, Pipkin, Reed
Two K-8 schools: Pleasant View, Pershing
One magnet school: Health Sciences Academy
The board will soon vote to approve eligibility changes that determine how far a student must live from a school to qualify for bus service. If approved, students who attend elementary, intermediate and K-8 schools will qualify for a bus ride to school if they live at least 1.5 miles from the building. Middle and high school students can catch a ride if they live 2.5 miles or more from those campuses. Recent changes to eligibility requirements led to about 3,000 additional SPS students being eligible to ride a bus to school, and Mulford said about 2,000 signed up for service. Now, ridership hovers in the mid-9,000s, he said.
At the Tuesday meeting, Mulford outlined a three-tier plan that would have different groups of students heading to schools that started and ended the day at different times. The proposal slightly tightens the gap in time between schools that start earliest and schools that start latest compared to this year, which Mulford acknowledged was a source of frustration for many parents.
“In the end, we have to weigh out what’s best for the majority, what’s best for the district, and try to make the best decision that we can,” Mulford said. “And that’s what we’ve attempted to do here is take the concerns that we’ve heard, address them to the best of our ability while at the same time providing the greatest amount of access to transportation that we can provide based on the workforce.”
The plan provides busing for students who attend magnet schools like the new AgAcademy while discontinuing service for early childhood education students who do not have special needs. Mulford explained to the board that either-or decisions had to be made in the current labor market, and parents largely were not sending their young kindergartners to school on buses.
“Most parents at that age want to bring their kids,” he said. “We were going to have to give up one or the other, so we focused on the choice programs, and providing equal access there.”
More staffing needed
Currently, high schools start at 7:30 a.m., elementary schools start at 8:30 a.m. and middle and K-8 schools start at 9:30 a.m. Mulford said the district’s transportation team had a goal of narrowing the start and end time windows to 45 minutes, but workforce issues have been a persistent challenge.
“As we ran our analysis, the 45 minutes just wasn’t going to work without significantly increasing drivers or cutting back services even more than what is reflected up here,” Mulford said as he showed the board a presentation about the proposal. “Believe it or not, the difference between 45 minutes and 50 minutes between tiers equates to 13 full-time drivers and routes. That five minutes makes that much of a difference.”
This school year, Mulford said there were times that everyone but the receptionist working at the transportation office was behind the wheel of a bus, pitching in to cover bus routes while the district tries to recruit more drivers. SPS has increased starting pay for bus drivers twice since July. The starting pay currently stands at $20 an hour. At the end of his presentation, Mulford put up a classified ad of sorts and asked the board and public who were watching the meeting to see if anyone wanted a part-time job as a bus driver or aide. The district was seven drivers short of being fully staffed in late March, and Mulford said that the eligibility changes the board will vote on later this month are always fluid, depending on the number of drivers they have.
“If we can get our staffing up, we’re going to want to restore eligibility as quick as we can,” he said. “On the flip side, if we get to July, (and) staffing goes backwards for some reason, we may have to come back to you to have to reduce eligibility, which we sure hope does not happen.”