By FRED KRONER
A new school.
A new school year.
A new set of problems.
They don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but issues surrounding student busing and parental dropoff of students has been a constant during the first weeks of the 2018-19 school year in the Mahomet-Seymour district.
Several frustrated parents shared their thoughts and concerns over what they are seeing thus far this month. School officially started in the district on Friday, Aug. 17.
The predominant focus of parents ranges from the length of time students spend daily on buses (or waiting at school for a bus) as well as the difficult and time-consuming nature of drop-offs, particularly at Middletown Prairie, which has limited entry and exit points.
Former school board candidate Ken Keefe recognizes that there is not a quick fix.
“I don’t think anyone will have a magic solution,” Keefe said. “A good first step might be to survey parents and see how they feel about the bus system and how they would like to see it changed.
“Maybe a common thread would emerge.”
Darren McLaughlin, whose family lives in Whisper Meadows, is concerned about the time students need to devote to reach or return from school.
“The main problem is that even under perfect circumstances, my oldest (a junior high student) will be either on the bus or waiting for the bus at school for around two hours a day,” McLaughlin said. “He must get on the bus every morning at 7:15 when classes don’t even start until an hour later.
“That is two hours a day (round trip), 10 hours a week, and 40 hours a month. He will spend the equivalent of a full work week every single month sitting idle (after school), or sitting on a bus just to get to and from a school that is 2.3 miles from our home.
“I could drive him to school in Bloomington every day and he would not waste that much time. It is simply not good for these kids to have that much time sitting idle every day. Two hours is too long to waste each and every day just getting to a school that is not far away in our small town.”
The closure of Sangamon School meant that about 420 additional students must make their way daily to Middletown Prairie this year.
The school district anticipated there could be some first-month glitches and has already started to make changes, according to Director of Transportation Jeremy Roark.
“We have had a couple surprises in ridership, mostly higher on a couple routes than originally expected,” Roark said. “We have had some move-ins in the last month. The district is constantly growing.
“As we are presented with these, we make adjustments as soon as possible. Due to dismissal times and travel time between schools, we have run into a slight increase in times before most are making it home. I will make further adjustments after the routes settle into their routine. We are seeing improvements on their own in some areas this week alone.”
The four schools within the M-S district all start classes within 15 minutes of one another. The earliest is 8:15 a.m. at the junior high school and the latest is 8:30 a.m. at Middletown Prairie.
Dismissals all occur within 12 minutes of one another. The first to let out is Middletown at 3 p.m. Both the junior high and high school end their classroom activities at 3:12 p.m.
More than 61 percent of the 2,448 students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade who are eligible to be transported by bus are taking advantage of the service through the first eight days of the semester.
In all, 1,503 students are using the bus, an increase, Roark said, of about 100 students over last year.
Before bus routes were determined, ridership projections were made.
“I did not anticipate the numbers we saw in a couple areas,” Roark said. “In the south, Jacob’s Landing continues to increase in population, but there were a couple other move-ins on the southern route that caused me to make another change during the first week.
“The area between Lake of the Woods and Prairieview Road also surprised me a little, I split the Middletown Prairie students into two buses to help with times and capacities, but the numbers in Hunters Ridge rose enough the first week of school that I had to move that area back to the route they were on last year.”
The ridership numbers may continue to fluctuate.
“We have a number of students in extracurricular activities after school and some in programs before school,” Roark noted.
The state requires public schools to provide transportation for students living 1 1/2 miles, or farther, from their attendance centers.
There are certain exceptions where those within the 1 1/2-mile limit must also be included.
Exception apply to those who reside in designated hazard zones, which can include a lack of sidewalks or high-trafficked roads that must be crossed,
“We are now transporting anyone K-2 that lives within the Village limits,” Roark said.
Due to district’s number of available buses, some drivers are asked to run their routes in shifts.
At days end, they transport a first group home and then return to the junior high school when their bus is empty, and pick up additional students.
“My frustration,” said Rachel Smith-Bolton, “is that the junior high kids get picked up so early (in the morning), just to sit in the cafeteria for a long time until school starts.
“Then, after school, they sit in the cafeteria again waiting for the bus to take them home. For my son, that will be two hours a day wait or bus time, when we live less than 10 minutes from the school.
“These long wait times occur because all the schools start close to the same time, but there’s only one set of buses that must get the older kids and then the younger kids to school.”
Parents make it clear they are not faulting the drivers.
“The problem here is not the bus drivers,” McLaughlin said. “Our bus driver is exceptional and his main focus is on safety.
“He always does a great job, as did our past driver. The schools here are great and I am sure everyone is doing their best to shepherd our resources, but this issue begs for some adjustment.”
Sarah Windingland, whose family has a rural Dewey address, has children at three different schools. Her oldest is a high school junior. She also has a fourth-grader at Lincoln Trail and a first-grader at Middletown Prairie.
Her two youngest ride the bus in the morning, but she has made arrangements for their pickup in the afternoon.
“My thoughts are there either needs to be better, more efficient busing or better, more efficient pick-up and drop-off,” Windingland said. “We would need more buses and also an aide on every bus to make sure children are being brought home safely and to the correct place. Another option would be to drastically stagger the start and end times of the school day so that the buses could do multiple routes for multiple schools. This would cut down on ride time for all children, not just those in the rural areas.
“On the car pickup issues, obviously better design as far as the parking lot and entry/exits go. Those of us who need to go to multiple schools are put in a hard position. I also think that someone directing traffic when the buses leave would be very helpful as well.”
Roark said one drop-off and pick-up change has already been implemented at Middletown Prairie.
“We swapped pick-up and drop-off locations for the parent drop-off/pick-up and bus drop-off and pick-up,” Roark said. “Transportation and MPE administration worked on this to remedy some issues seen on the first couple days in attendance.
“Original plan was to have first- and second-grade parents utilize the west side of the school near the new gym and the buses stay with the existing site on the east side of the building.
“We moved the buses to the west and parents to the east. Swapping sides has seemed to help with traffic flow and has allowed all parents, regardless of grade level, to drop-off and pick-up near the school office doors.
“It is always a work in progress and we adjust to new things each year, we just had a lot this year in particular.”
The district operates 20 morning and afternoon routes with six doing complete double duty.
Those six will first drop off high school and junior high students and, once their buses are empty, head out again to pick up Lincoln Trail and Middletown students.
Eleven routes do not make a second run. Three routes pick up some additional students before making their first drop-off of the morning.
Keefe, whose family lives north of Mahomet, is another advocate of aides or monitors on each bus.
“Kids are supposed to sit in particular sections,” Keefe said, “and that helps keep kindergartners from getting next to juniors and seniors.
“My junior high student said she was amazed because little kids were in the back of the bus.”
Keefe acknowledged that bus drivers “have a lot going on,” and added, “in general, we’ve had positive experiences with our busing other than long rides.
“Developmentally, I’m not sure they should be mixing (the age groups). I’m not as much concerned about their physical safety as language and stuff that’s going on. It’s essentially an unmonitored 50-minute hangout.”
In Windingland’s opinion, aides on all buses should be mandatory.
“I believe having an aide on each bus to make sure the correct children are on the bus, and getting off at the correct stops would help,” Windingland said. “Not to mention to keep an eye on the behavior of kids.
“I have heard that many kids have had bullying incidents or issues, and that is why they won’t use the bus service to get their kids to school — which if they did use it would also help alleviate the congestion at car pickup time. It seems unreasonable for one person to drive a bus full of children safely and make sure they are behaving and getting where they need to go.”
Windingland knows from experience about the time commitment required of parents who pick up their children after school.
“Last year I would need to arrive at Middletown at least 30 minutes early (each day) in order to be near the front of the car pick-up line,” Windingland said. “That way I could get to Lincoln Trail in time for pick-up there.
“This generally meant 70 minutes of wait time for me. I consider myself very lucky that I am able to stay home with my children, but the sheer waste of time was very frustrating.”
Danielle Deck lives inside the village limits and said she was in “disbelief and complete disgust,” with what happened to her 7-year-old second-grader on the second day of school during his afternoon ride home.
“They stopped at his stop and when he tried to get off, they told him his name wasn’t called, so he was on the bus for an additional hour,” Deck said. “We called the bus barn multiple times with no answers, called MPE and they said they dropped him off on Church Street.
“My husband was irate with the secretary. We don’t have a Church street around us.”
The Decks subsequently received a callback from school personnel that afternoon.
“Her exact words were ‘they just found him on the bus. He’s on his way home.’ “ Deck related. “I understand it’s the first days of school but ‘losing’ a child for over an hour is completely unacceptable.”
Windingland learned of a separate problem that she found surprising and disappointing.
“As I’m waiting at the bus stop, another parent tells me that the morning bus ran out of space,” she said. “So they had to tell parents that they could call for another bus or they could drive their child in.”
Smith-Bolton said her family relies on the buses for more than one reason.
“Doing drop-off and pick-up ourselves is not an option,” she said, “because we work during the day and because we believe that 100 cars driving to and from school does much more environmental damage than one bus.
“If one considers cost to the community of adding buses and drivers, one must balance that against cost to the community of the wasted man-hours parents spend driving and sitting in the drop-off and pick-up lines, as well as the cost of gas and the environmental costs of using that gas.”
Besides asking the school district to lease more buses, Smith-Bolton offered another alternative for consideration.
“Stagger the school start times,” she said. “Research has shown that starting school later is much better for teenagers, and many school districts across the country have made the move to later high school start times.
“If our junior and senior high schools started later, the buses could take the elementary kids to school and then come back for the older kids.”
It has not been unusual for elementary students who live east of Bondville, along Rt. 10, to be dropped off at 4:30 p.m.
McLaughlin hoped for better from a district with Mahomet-Seymour’s reputation.
“The reason that we — and I assume many others — chose to move to Mahomet was the schools,” McLaughlin said. “Our kids have had wonderful teachers, administrators, and bus drivers every year, but considering how much money we all pay in property taxes and the size of this town, it seems reasonable to expect the schools to provide transportation that is timely for all of our kids and to not have our children spending two or more hours a day either sitting on, or waiting for, the bus.”
Bus issues affect all students, not just those in full-day classrooms.
“Preschool kids are apparently also having a rough bus experience,” McLaughlin added. “My neighbor said the preschool bus picks up at 7:20 but classes don’t start until 8:20. Classes end at 11 and the bus returns the kids at 11:40.
“I think anyone would say that no 4-year-old should be on a bus for an hour and 40 minutes each day to attend school for two hours and 40 minutes. That does not seem conducive to good learning for such young kids, especially at the very beginning of their school life.”
Windingland hopes the bus drivers don’t get discouraged.
“I salute the bus drivers,” she said. “I can’t imagine how stressful it must be.”
Whatever other solutions are ultimately reached could create an additional set of problems.
For example, the prospects of high school students starting — and finishing — their school days later might not set well with parents who count on their teen-agers to supervise younger siblings until they return home from work. Who wants to think about a second-grader being home alone for an hour in the afternoon until their high school brother or sister can arrive?
Keefe doesn’t have the answers, but there’s one thing he can say with certainty.
“I don’t envy the people making the decisions,” Keefe said.