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School Districts Try to Save Money by Changing Bus Routes

a photo of a school bus

In most of Ohio, the kids are back in school. More than 800,000 of them ride buses to class each day.

Figuring out the most efficient and cost-effective way to do that is a complex equation. And it’s become more important now with student transportation taking a big hit in the new state budget. Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow talkes to some experts about getting those kids to and from school quickly, safely and economically.

“I woke up one day and decided I wanted to do what I always wanted to do be happy and drive a school bus,” Clark says.

Patrick Clark is working his dream job after spending most of his life in retail.

“You get to know the kids, you get to know the parents and you almost become part of the family.”

Clark has been driving students in the Licking Heights School District in central Ohio for seven years. He says his responsibility goes beyond simply taking students to and from school.

“When you get to that point and you’re walking through the store and you have a 25-year-old walk up to you and give you a big hug because he had such a good experience on your bus, you know you’ve done something right,” Clark says.

Drawing up the maps
A good busing experience for Clark and his students on the road starts with Darlene Mortine, the district’s transportation supervisor.

A big part of Mortine’s job is to draw the bus routes to make sure they’re as quick and efficient as possible.

“Basically when I build the routes I look at logistics, I look at miles, how many miles, I look at time and my busload,” Mortine says.

Why efficiency matters

The state has been cutting more and more funding from school transportation for almost a decade. It started in 2009 when Ohio said it would no longer pick up the bill for new buses. For this school year, lawmakers cut $56 million from school transportation. Next year, another $19 million will be cut.

So districts need to find new ways to pinch pennies by creating faster, more effective routes.

From push pins to computer software
That’s where Pete Japikse comes in. He’s a transportation consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association who’s been routing buses for decades. Japikse says the process has come a long way.

“In the 80’s, this was manually generated. We would actually take a push pin on the cork board that had the map on it and then we would wrap strings around it,” Japikse says, pointing to a map.

Now computer software does a lot of the leg work.

“What the software does for us is, how many children are on the bus, how many minutes have you used and at some point it’ll say you’re done, and then we’ll route that bus to the school,” Japikse says.

School districts will call Japikse and get his advice on how to optimize their routes.. He says most districts can buy software for about $10,000 and that does most of the work.

“The software is very powerful, it’s a great tool, but it’s not the solution as a standalone source.”

Knowing a community
That’s because there’s still a need for a human component. Someone who knows the neighborhood and knows things like which intersection can be troublesome and where it’s best to turn right instead of left.

“So really the best solution for schools today is a person who knows the district, who understands the business, who can use the computer software tool to write routes and then put it all together in a great package,” Japiske says.

Putting those components together can go a long way for any school district that spends an average of about $50,000 a year for each bus route.

In the end, driver Patrick Clark says it all goes back to that one-on-one connection with students to make sure they start their school day on the right foot.

“In the mornings when I dismiss, I say, 'Have a good morning, make good choices.'”