Seeking to fix Boston’s long-troubled school bus system, a consultant hired by the district is recommending several potentially controversial solutions, including changing the start times for schools, limiting which students can ride buses, and reevaluating whether every student with a disability who receives door-to-door service should continue to do so.
The recommendations, presented to the School Committee Wednesday night, are a response to years of late-running buses and ever-rising transportation costs, problems so persistent that last year the state demanded the city improve under a plan signed by the two sides.
The call for revamping school start times could generate the most heated debates if school officials pursue that measure, coming five years after a previous attempt to overhaul schedules at nearly every school collapsed amid public uproar.
But the new recommendations make clear the change is necessary: BPS transportation is currently juggling 19 different start times and 25 different dismissals each day. Many of those routes are clustered at the height of rush hour, which often causes buses to run late and prevents them from doing multiple runs.
“Changes to bell schedules, while not easy, are essential to improving on-time performance,” according to the report by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy organization for the nation’s largest school systems. “Effective implementation will require meaningful stakeholder engagement. A communication plan outlining stakeholder groups, engagement opportunities, and timelines should be developed.”
The wide variation in bell schedules is due to the complexity of BPS busing operations, which transport 21,500 students each day to 242 public and private schools and specialized programs. Although BPS attempts to streamline the deployment of buses with three standardized bell schedules — with start times at 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and 9:30 a.m. — many schools operate on different schedules because the length of school days varies across the system.
Changing bell times, the report notes, would produce another major benefit for a school system that spends more than $140 million annually on busing: more buses making multiple runs in the morning and afternoon, which could allow BPS to shrink its fleet and save money.
The state-mandated district improvement plan called for the transportation review and requires BPS to get at least 95 percent of buses to school on time each month, a benchmark it has yet to meet. The on-time performance for December was 93 percent, according to BPS.
Superintendent Mary Skipper told the School Committee that BPS submitted the new recommendations to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and expressed optimism the district is making progress on bus timeliness.
“We’re really encouraged by the progress and we’re going to keep working hard” with the district’s transportation contractor, Transdev, and the bus drivers union, Skipper said.
She also noted that on-time performance for last week, when school resumed following the holiday break, was 91 percent — higher than previous years — and only 43 bus trips didn’t have drivers, down from 140 trips last year.
Skipper also said she will soon announce a transportation advisory board that will include parents and BPS staff and will help inform the district’s responses to the council’s recommendations.
The tardiness extends well beyond differing school schedules. Boston has among the worst traffic congestion in the nation, which makes it difficult to create routes that have enough time between stops. Meanwhile, the pressure to control costs can result in packed buses making more stops than what drivers say are possible to get to school or home on time.
Tensions between management and bus drivers also run high, and the bus fleet is stretched thin by school assignment policies within BPS that enable many students to attend schools more than 3 miles from their homes because of a shortage of seats or quality schools in their neighborhoods.
In a memo to School Committee members, Samuel DePina, deputy superintendent of operations, said the district is reviewing the recommendations and is already talking to charter schools about “making incremental bell time changes that will move BPS towards a more uniform, evenly distributed three tier bell system.”
Other recommendations in the report ask BPS to:
- Consider expanding the distance from school under which students would no longer qualify for bus service.
- Determine whether every student with a disability who gets picked up and dropped off in front of their homes truly needs that service.
- Conduct a comprehensive review of bus routes with an eye toward greater efficiencies.
- Cut the number of buses and vans by extending the amount of time students can spend on buses and increasing the number of students per bus.
Changing school bell schedules could test the leadership of both Skipper and Mayor Michelle Wu. In the last attempt, in December 2017, then-superintendent Tommy Chang and former mayor Martin J. Walsh invested considerable political capital to push their plan only to drop it two weeks after the School Committee approved it.
The proposal, which would have more schools opening before 7:30 a.m., was widely panned due to a lack of public buy-in and engagement. The School Committee approved a policy to change the school start times without first informing the public what the new start and end bells would be at each school. BPS provided that information the day after the School Committee vote, sparking a tidal wave of opposition.
The controversy marred Chang’s reputation and six months later, under pressure from Walsh, he left BPS.
The recommendations sparked questions from School Committee members on a range of issues that included school start times, bus utilization, a dramatic rise in students requiring aides on the bus, and the need for multilingual customer service representatives.
“My fear is like moving towards bigger policy changes, like school start times” without having precision about how many students are on a bus, said member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez. “I think any Bostonian will tell you they will see a bus drive by them and there’s two kids on a big old bus and it feels surprising sometimes.”
Lorena Lopera, another member, wanted to know why BPS doesn’t have accurate data on which students are actually riding the bus, noting BPS at times had tracked that data previously.
“If there is a tool we already have that we can implement, I’m curious about that,” she said.