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Buses will make fewer stops, under school district plan

Vashon’s school buses could skip some neighborhoods next year, saving the cash-strapped Island school district nearly $100,000 but forcing 100 students to go farther to catch the bus — a move bus drivers said could jeopardize children’s safety.

Faced with a $1 million budget gap and only weeks to bridge it, school officials are considering a proposal that would cut some routes entirely and truncate several others to save thousands of dollars on bus driver wages and fuel costs in a bus system that serves 750 students.

Point Robinson, Spring Beach, Reddings Beach and the Dilworth Loop would all lose service entirely if the school board approves the proposal, and some bus stops Islandwide would be consolidated.

This bus service proposal comes at a time when the community has rallied behind its teachers, raising more than $40,000 to retain several district employees who would otherwise have been laid off. But if school officials can’t trim $100,000 from the district’s transportation budget, as they’ve assumed they can, more teachers could still get laid off, said school board chair Bob Hennessey.

“When you put it in the terms of trading buses with teachers, obviously education is important, so I’m thinking that I can find ways to work around it,” said Erica Davidson, who lives in Reddings Beach.

Her children, in third and fourth grade, walk less than a block to their bus stop on Reddings Beach Road. Under the proposed route change, they’d have a half-mile trek to Wax Orchard Road, a straightaway that sometimes serves as a thoroughfare for vehicles speeding to the south-end ferry in the morning.

“They’re able to do it on their own now,” Davidson said. “If it were on Wax Orchard, there’s no way I could let them do it on their own. ... I would do it with them. And that’s a long way to go if it’s raining or snowing or cold.”

Six bus drivers, however, attended last week’s meeting to express concerns about the overhaul of their bus routes, and one bus driver read a letter on behalf of himself and his worried coworkers.

The lion’s share of the $100,000 in transportation savings that school officials are banking on comes from cutting 12 bus routes to 11, saving a full bus driver salary, eliminating midday bus service at a savings of $22,000 annually and combining dozens of bus stops to save both fuel and time.

These moves could put students in danger, said bus drivers, who on Vashon work for First Student, the company that operates the Island’s school bus service.

“Making children walk long distances could cause accidents that could be avoided,” said bus driver Tom Lehman at the school board meeting June 11. “We absolutely support efforts to cut costs, but we do not think this is the way to do it. It constitutes an unreasonable risk to a lot of kids.”

He added that some parents could opt to drive their students to school rather than drive them to a bus stop or send them off on a walk of a half-mile or more — costing the district thousands in state funding it gets per student who rides the bus.

“We believe that making parents drive their children a long distance ... discourages them to put their kids on the bus at all,” Lehman said. “You’re not saving dollars, you’re destroying the transportation system.”

Hennessey noted that the proposal put forth last week is “the worst-case scenario.”

“I would like to tweak the maps some more to see if we can provide a little more extensive service, but at the same time I’m uncomfortable cutting every program in the district, including more than a handful of teachers, while not doing anything with regards to transportation,” he said. “If these choices were easy, they would have been made long ago.”

One alteration for next year has already been decided upon and will save the district $10,000 annually in fuel and bus driver wages, said superintendent Terry Lindquist. Start and dismissal times at all three schools have been altered for next year, which will reduce the amount of time buses idle between schools.

Vashon High School will start and end 10 minutes later, beginning at 7:45 a.m. and dismissing at 2:35 p.m. McMurray Middle School will start and end 15 minutes later — 7:50 a.m. to 2:25 p.m. — and Chautauqua students will begin school at 9 a.m. and finish at 3:10, five minutes earlier.

Martha Hills, who has driven Island school buses for 18 years, said many students would be affected if bus routes change. Her route includes the Dilworth Loop, an area that would no longer be served if the proposal is adopted — an area, she said, where 25 to 30 children get on the bus.

“I’m concerned about kids walking distances form their safe driveways,” she said. “Also, a lot of those kids already walk out of Glen Acres, so they’re already walking for a while.”

Dilworth resident and parent Diana Anderson said she and her neighbors will likely carpool their children to the bus stop if it moves to 91st Avenue S.W.

“Well, of course none of us like it, but if it saves a teacher, I guess they can do it,” said Anderson, whose children will be McMurray students next year. “It’s going to be a hassle, and it’s nothing I want to do, but if it’s going to save a teacher’s job, it’s worth it.”

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