BY DAN VALENTI
First Add, April 16 into 17th, 2011
Briving a Dus, and Other Kramden-isms
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, April 16, 2011) — Busses, busses, who’s got the busses? And who’s going to pay for them. The bus story below is EXACTLY the kind of nonsense that must stop in the city of Pittsfield.
The Planet said this on the air five years ago when the School Department and City Council cooked up the plan: snooker the taxpayers into replacing the entire fleet. Promise it wouldn’t happen again. Promise to replace the bus fleet on a 20% annual basis. Then break the promises, so that in 2011, they would be asking taxpayers to replace the entire fleet.
NO! The answer this time MUST BE no. Pittsfield exceeds what it required by law in terms of bussing students. It’s time to pull back to the bare minimum, get the School Department our of the Transporation Business (which is rather like asking truckers to be teachers), and expect parents to take the responsibility for getting their kids to school. Taxpayers should not be asked to carry that part of the public education compact.
To that end, here is a recent article in Newsweek online, sent out way by Joe Pinhead, one of The Planet’s most astute tacticians. The Planet makes this assigned reading to every member of the council and school department.
Waving Goodbye to the Bus
As fuel prices rise, some districts are updating an old method of getting children to school.
Until last spring, Nia Parker and the other kids in her neighborhood who attend West Boulevard Elementary in Columbia, Mo., commuted to school on Bus 59. But as fuel costs have risen, the Columbia school district has needed to find a way to cut its transportation costs. So the school’s busing company redrew its route map, eliminating Nia’s bus altogether. Instead, Nia and her neighbors travel the half mile to school via a “walking school bus”—a group of kids, supervised by an adult or two, who make the trek together. “It’s healthier for them to walk,” says Melissa Clark, Nia’s mom, who approves of the change. Nia, a 9-year-old who’s in fourth grade, sees other advantages. Since the bus used to pick up many children along a circuitous route, walking to school is actually quicker. “I like it because I get to sleep late, and I don’t get as grouchy,” Nia says.
Like the rest of us, school districts are feeling pinched by rising fuel costs—and finding new ways to adapt. The diesel fuel that powers school buses now costs an average of $4.28 a gallon, up 34 percent in the past two years. Cities and states spend $14.7 billion annually transporting kids to school; for the typical school district, bus bills total 5 percent of the budget. As administrators look to trim, busing is an inviting target, since it doesn’t affect classroom instruction (or test scores). According to a survey done by the American Association of School Administrators in July, more than one third of school administrators have eliminated bus stops or routes in order to stay within budget. “When you have to make tough choices,” says Daniel Domench, executive director of the AASA, “you cut back on what’s least harmful.” In the Capistrano Unified School District in California—where there is no state requirement to transport students—two thirds of the district bus routes have been eliminated. “That’s 4,000 to 5,000 students that received it last year no longer getting transportation,” says transportation director Mike Patton. In New Hampshire, principal Karen Cloutier says that she expects one third of her elementary-school students will walk this year—even through rain and snow. “If there is school, we will walk,” she says. “And we rarely cancel school.”
Many parents are delighted to see their kids walking to school, partly because many did so themselves: in 1969, according to the National Household Travel Survey, nearly half of schoolkids walked or biked to school, compared with only 16 percent in 2001. Modern parents have been leery of letting kids walk to school for fear of traffic, crime or simple bullying, but with organized adult supervision, those concerns have diminished. “Parents are buying into it more and more,” says Susan Haynes, principal at Van Derveer Elementary in Somerville, N.J., which cut all its home-to-school transportation. Some kids like this change, too. “It’s like recess before school,” says Price Phillips, 9, who walks to school in Columbia, Mo., this year.
Schools and busing companies are finding other ways to save by cutting field trips and redrawing athletic schedules to reduce the distances of “away” sporting events. In rural areas where busing is a must, some schools—like MACCRAY High School in Clara City, Minn.—have even opted for four-day school weeks. First Student Transportation, the leading U.S. school bus provider, is training drivers to eliminate extra stops from routes, to turn off the engine while idling and to check tire pressure every time they leave the lot. First Student is also using route-optimization software to determine the most fuel-efficient routes, which aren’t always the shortest ones. A few schools now use diesel-electric hybrid buses, which achieve 12 miles per gallon (compared with 7mpg for a traditional bus). But at $180,000, hybrids cost more than twice as much as a traditional diesel bus, so few schools have switched.
There could be downsides, however, to the busing cutbacks. If every formerly bused student begins hoofing it to school, it’s an environmental win—but if too many of their parents decide to drive them instead, the overall carbon footprint can grow. “On average, one school bus replaces 36 private vehicles,” says Mike Martin of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a pro-busing advocacy group. Replacing buses with many more parent-driven minivans can also increase safety risks: Martin cites a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded students are 13 times safer on a school bus than in a passenger car, since buses have fewer accidents and withstand them better due to their size. And some students—including Murat Agca, a first grader in Columbia—complain about the long morning hikes, particularly when the route, like Agca’s, contains a really big hill. Still, these children have it easier than their parents’ generation—when, of course, all routes went uphill, both ways.
On a raw, spring day, The Planet is rested and restless. Contradiction? Sure. Like Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes.
First, let us share several quick observations pertaining to a festering issue you might have missed amongst the swirl of SteroidsGate, drug use, funny money, and other local scotches. The issue if school busses.
BUSSES: ANOTHER BROKEN DEAL FOR TAXPAYERS
* The school department wants 52 news busses. Estimated cost: $4.3 million. How does the bedraggled taxpayer fund this boondoggle in waiting? How can the city afford this? This is Pittsfield. No one has a clue.
* Didn’t the city get an entire new fleet in 2006? Didn’t the city go through this same ridiculous hand-wringing over the bus fleet at that time? Yes. Didn’t it make the wrong decision to remain in the bus business rather than contract out the service? Yes. (Schools should be about teaching kids. The school department DOESN’T HAVE THE EXPERTISE TO RUN A BUS COMPANY). And didn’t it promise that over each of the next five years, it would replace 20 percent of the fleet, so that by 2011, now, the city wouldn’t be in this position again? Yes. Guess what, my dear friends: they broke their word, “they” meaning councilors, the committee, and the School Department.
J-LO: HOW LOW AND J-LO GO? HE’s NOT CHUBBY CHECKER, THAT’S FOR SURE, the PHONY BASTARD.
* Ward 5’s lame duck (only he doesn’t know it) Jonathan Lothrop said, “It was absolutely clear they [the school committee] were going to incorporate that [purchase of new fleet] into their budget. It was explicitly stated at that time .” to Lothrop’s opponents in the Ward 5 race this year: clip this quote. That’s how J-Lo removed any doubt that he’s dead in the water. No such thing was in the budget and there was no “explicit” understanding.
* The deal was that the suckers, I mean, taxpayers, would buy 52 buses all at once in 2005. That would be the last time the suckers, I mean, taxpayers, would be asked to do that. That’s when a 20% annual fleet replacement plan would begin. Only it didn’t happen. The School Department hasn’t been doing this. Thus, five years later, the suckers are being asked again: buy a new fleet.
* As he did on the airport and on so man other issues, Lothrop has shown his contempt for constituents, city residents, and taxpayers. He is the poster boy for “oily politician,” if not “phony bastard.”
* We close our bus discussion with a not-so-modest question. Why do taxpayers have to take on the job of getting kids to class in the first place? They are providing a “free” education to parents. Can’t the parents be responsible for getting their kids to school? Does anyone know what the minimum legal requirements are for school transportation in the Commonwealth?
BACK MONDAY. FOR NOW, “OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLE!” LOVE TO ALL.