Scottsdale Schools officials discuss bus, school bell schedule to find cost savings

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board and top officials discussed their school bus routes during an Oct. 5 meeting. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

An inevitable conversation top officials at Scottsdale Unified School District have been wary about is bubbling to the forefront of the Governing Board dais: the school bell schedules.

Following a June 2016 discussion on altering the school bell schedules, Scottsdale Schools leaders have been conscious of the touchy subject, when a flood of parents responded to changing their daily routine.

The SUSD transportation department, however, has been cutting back in every possible area since a 2015 audit shined a light on cost inefficiencies surrounding the school bus operation. The officials in charge of the bus fleet say creating a tiered bell schedule for elementary, middle and high schools is the only other way to create a cost savings in the transportation department. The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board and top district leaders met at Coronado High School on Oct. 5 for a special meeting, which included following-up on transportation costs from a 2015 Arizona Office of the Auditor

General performance audit showed the district’s transportation department was not running efficiently.

Following the audit, the district began developing and monitoring performance measures to monitor cost per mile, cost per rider and bus capacity. In March, the Governing Board approved the purchasing of two software programs to help with tracking.

In April, Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith presented the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board with information produced by the Auditor General’s report on classroom spending for fiscal year 2016. During the April 21 meeting, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell noted the additional costs created by having a non-tiered bell schedule.

Transportation costs per rider show the district spends $1,677, versus $1,092 state average. In fiscal year 2016, the district drove just under 2 million miles on the school buses, numbers show. Additionally, student trips out of state or country, that don’t include any district automobiles, are still considered a transportation cost, district officials say.

Dr. Birdwell gave Transportation Director Jeff Cook high praises at the start of the transportation conversation, noting she considers him the best transportation person in the state.

“You had a significant issue in transportation — the audit was clear about that — but if there are fixes to be found, we have the right person in the department,” Dr. Birdwell said. “We have the very best person in the seat to run that bus.”

Mr. Cook stood before the Governing Board outlining cutbacks he’s made in recent years, including consolidating routes and decreasing buses and drivers utilized on a daily basis.

From school year 2013-14 to 2017-18, route reductions have gone from 144 to 112, while from 2016 to 2017, SUSD went from 142 bus drivers to 117, district numbers show.

“We’ve pretty much done all we reasonably can do to get the costs down, to be as lean and mean of a machine as we can,” he told the Governing Board, noting one area that he recognized immediately would save money.

“There is one other thing I told Mr. O’Brien, I was here for about one week, and I said ‘well I can tell you right now what we need to do, and that’s bell times.’”

SUSD has four schedules:

  • 10 schools are 7:45 a.m.-2:20 p.m.;
  • Two schools are 7:45 a.m.-2:15 p.m.;
  • One school is 8:15 a.m.-2:50 p.m.
  • 16 schools are 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

Due to SUSD’s bell schedule, the bus drivers serve two schools, while some only serve one.

Mr. Cook says by only having a 60-minute window from the first schedule to the second, requires more buses on the road at the same time. He estimates he could cut down his buses and drivers by 8-15 depending on the variation of possible schedules.

“I’ve worked in the state of Washington, and I’ve been in three other school districts down here, and this is the only one where I’ve seen this kind of set up in a unified school district,” Mr. Cook explained of SUSD’s operations. “I’m just being very blunt. It’s a real inefficient waste of transportation resources because we’re not getting the best bang for our buck.”

Mr. Cook recommended a 90-105 minute window of time to provide true efficiencies. He said in his experience, the average minimum window of time for other districts is about an hour and a half.

“I’m not promoting this, I’m just giving it to you to think about,” he said. “I know bell schedules are a very emotional thing. I just want you to know, that as far as what we’ve done, I don’t see that we can cut any more to get any real significant savings.”

For everything there is a time

The transportation department isn’t only responsible for transporting students to and from school, but they also are used for high school and middle school sports, extracurricular activities, gifted, math, science, culinary arts and EVIT, field trips for all three school ages and after-school tutoring.

Mr. Cook also asked the Governing Board to begin looking at utilizing some of the 2016 bond money to replace aging fleets. The SUSD average fleet age is 10.19 years, Mr. Cook says, and has a number of buses equipped special education buses that need to be replaced now.

Buses that need replacement over the next five years include: 39 regular, 84-passenger buses; and 19 special education 16-passenger buses.

Mr. Cook said he’s looking at 78-passenger buses that cost up to $25,000 less than the 84-passenger vehicles.

Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz and Board President Barbara Perleberg asked for additional bell schedule information if the conversation comes up in the future.

“If we are going to be discussing … maybe I’m stepping right into it — if we are going to be discussing bell time schedules as an efficiency, I would be interested at looking at which of our schools start at particular times, and perhaps adjust what’s been suggested here,” Ms. Kravetz said.

Ms. Perleberg added on, noting when her children were in elementary school they started before 8 a.m.

“If we have this discussion I know it has not been that long that we did indeed have three bell schedules — I lived it, our elementary schools started early,” Ms. Perleberg said. “I’d like someone to do some research and find out what it was the last time we had it.”

Possible schedules presented at the meeting show:

  • High school starting at 7:30 and 7:35 a.m.; middle school starting at 8:15 a.m.; K-8 schools starting at 8:45 a.m. and K-6 schools starting at 6:15 a.m.; or
  • A mixed schedule with schools starting at 7:35 a.m.; 8:30 a.m.; and 9:05 a.m.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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