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Fusd Slashes Bus Service Eligibility in Response to Ongoing Driver Shortage

Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) announced Wednesday afternoon it will be changing some middle and high school students’ eligibility for its bus routes beginning after winter break.

The change comes in response to both a clarification of safety measures from the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) and an ongoing driver shortage affecting schools across the United States.

The district is among several local transit providers that have been facing a bus driver shortage in recent years. It has been trying to address this issue throughout the fall semester, adjusting other routes and creating a transportation committee that includes both school board members and transportation department employees.

Service changes
At the beginning of this school year, FUSD had consolidated its bus routes and increased the walking distance between a middle or high school student’s home and the nearest bus stop needed to qualify for transportation. This resulted in around 300 students no longer qualifying for transportation, and crowding on the remaining routes — which had been reduced from 50 to 44.

“We anticipated these changes would carry us through this school year and allow the district more time to continue to evaluate our transportation services,” said FUSD Superintendent Michael Penca.

The higher busloads caused by those changes, however, was what led to this week’s announcement of the service reduction, coming in response to a DPS investigation of overcrowding and safety on buses.

In a letter sent to district families Wednesday, FUSD said it was changing its eligibility for transportation service in response to a request from DPS, which it said has a regulation requiring a maximum of two passengers per seat in school buses for older students.

Penca said a DPS official had referenced an Arizona Administrative Code that included requirements for passengers to sit with their legs facing forward, backs flat against the seat and all body parts clear of the aisle, while not exceeding the capacity given by the bus manufacturer. Knowingly violating these expectations could lead to criminal charges for individuals in the district, he said.

FUSD’s busloads did not always meet the first part of this requirement, eventually leading to the safety concern. The district had at times been asking all of its students to sit three to a seat, a number that was considered unsafe for students in secondary schools.

Patrick Fleming, the district’s director of transportation, explained that students past elementary school cannot typically sit three to a seat while still meeting safety standards, such as keeping a clear aisle. Similarly, bus capacities are often based on the size of elementary students, he said, so a 72-passenger bus can only safely fit 48 middle- or high-schoolers.

In mid-October, DPS directed the district to limit its middle and high school routes to a maximum of two students per seat.

Penca said FUSD’s transportation committee began planning to reduce capacity at a Nov. 30 meeting when it did not receive permission to wait until the 2024-2025 school year to do so.

FUSD decided to reduce capacity by lowering the number of students eligible for bus service, Penca and Fleming said, because the district’s large geographical size and existing shortages mean adding more routes would not be possible.

Fleming said the district had rebalanced eight of its bus routes at the end of October to more evenly spread the load counts across the fleet, but was unable to do so further.

“We had cut more routes in August, at the beginning of the school year, which had the effect of increasing the number of students on the routes, so there’s really no additional room to cut routes with the staff that we have, or to increase routes with the staff that we have,” he said. “The only way to gain that capacity is to look at eligibility.

He added: “If we had the staff, we would add the routes.”

Because of this, the district is rearranging eligibility to reduce the number of middle and high students taking its buses to the point where only two students per seat is possible, according to Fleming. The district will still allow three students to a seat on the elementary school buses.

“We are not looking to impact any elementary routes,” Fleming said. “The impacts that we have currently are middle school and high school, and that’s the goal, to bring those numbers down to what the student transportation division expects our numbers to be in order to see that the aisleways are clear, there are only two students to a seat. That is a far safer seating arrangement.”

In order to do so, FUSD will be making additional changes to the students eligible for bus service beginning Jan. 4, 2024, the first day back to school after winter break.

New eligibility

Wednesday’s announcement means a further reduction in FUSD’s transportation services, as approximately 600 more students will no longer qualify for transportation from FUSD, according to Penca. After this takes effect, high-schoolers who live inside the Flagstaff city limits will no longer receive bus transportation from FUSD, nor will middle and high school students attending schools outside of the boundary in which they live.

These changes will not affect those attending Summit High School or transportation-eligible students receiving special education, homeless/McKinney-Vento or foster services, according to the district’s announcement. High-schoolers outside the city limits will also still receive bus service, including those living in Doney Park, Fort Valley (Baderville), Parks, Bellemont, Mountainaire, Kachina Village, Cameron and Leupp.

The district is offering free Mountain Line bus passes for affected families during the spring semester and will be hosting information sessions with Mountain Line in the coming weeks to help families learn about other ways to get their students to school.

These groups were chosen based on their ability to access Mountain Line bus routes or other forms of transportation, as well as how their transport affected other district routes, Fleming said.

“There is no more capacity to rebalance by shifting vehicles to different areas,” he said. “The only remaining ability for us to gain any capacity at all was to look at students who are not part of our traditional transportation — students who go to a school outside of their boundary. …[Providing this] was something we felt was right to do for families in our magnet programs, but it takes seating capacity to do that.”

Fleming expected some families with students attending a school other than the one for their boundary might re-register their students, switching to the in-boundary district school to be able to receive transportation. Some families might do so over the semester break, though he expected a larger number of families to change at the start of the next school year.

The high school buses to students within city limits were then added to the reductions to account for this possibility — which could mean more of a redistribution rather than reduction if enough families re-register.

This possibility is also a reason behind the announcement’s timing, as it was intended to give students who need to re-register a clear point where they can change over their credits. Fleming says this is the biggest change he’s seen in the 18 years he’s worked in FUSD transportation, and the solution that best addresses both the safety concerns and staffing limitations.

“None of us in transportation or education come into this to not provide service,” he said. “I haven’t seen this significant of a change or of a requirement in my entire time. This wasn’t a change that we made easily without a lot of consideration. … In a perfect world, I’d have a bus for everyone and we wouldn’t have to worry about state budgets, or budget limitations, but I don’t know where that perfect world is.”

Ongoing shortage

FUSD is among the local area transit providers affected by a national bus driver shortage in recent years. A need to regrow the driver workforce after the pandemic, a shortage of people with CDL training, the higher pay offered by other types of CDL jobs and Flagstaff’s high cost of living have all added to this shortage, according to local transit leaders.

The cost of transportation has also been rising in the district, according to a presentation in an August board meeting, a result of increased fuel prices, driver minimum wages and repair costs.

According to that presentation, the district had exceeded its revenue control limit for transportation by about $1.75 million in 2023 after also having done so to a lesser extent in 2020 and 2022. The limit is set by the state and has been the same total of about $5.8 million since 2020 — a grandfathered-in higher total than FUSD would receive using current calculations.

FUSD has tried to address its shortage through adjusted routes similar to the change announced this week and hiring efforts such as increased pay and training. It has also needed to have office staff drive buses and cancel some routes the day of in response to absences.

The state only requires districts to provide transportation to students with special needs in their individualized education plans, students experiencing homelessness and students in the foster care system who are also eligible for transportation. For all other students, the district is allowed to provide transportation, but is not required.

Fleming said the district had about 60 bus routes for its students in the late 2010s. It currently has 44 routes, with districtwide enrollment of 8,892 students reported in the Oct. 24 board meeting.

“Our population hasn’t gone down so much that we need that many fewer routes,” Fleming said. “We are beginning to carry more and more students, and have been since we returned from the pandemic. … The number of students over 60 routes versus the same number — or close — over 44 routes is definitely a lot more crowded.”

He said the district provided transportation to about 2,700 district students.

In August, Fleming had said the district needed 20 more drivers to serve all of the students seeking transportation fully. As of Thursday, he said, the district was still 20 drivers short, with its newest hires still in training to replace those planning to retire, and not yet ready to begin driving.

While the district has continued with its hiring efforts and recently created a transportation advisory committee, Fleming expects the driver shortage to continue.

“Student transportation is short-staffed across the nation. I don’t know if I see that improving,” he said. “COVID did a number on older drivers across the country … [and] those drivers who left the workforce aren’t coming back.”

He noted that bus driving wasn’t a high-demand job and had odd hours, all adding to the problem.

“It’s not an easy job, but the ones who do it for more than a few years stick around because they love it,” he said.

Transportation committee

FUSD’s Oct. 24 board meeting had included the creation of a temporary ad hoc transportation advisory committee as an attempt to begin finding solutions. It then finalized the committee’s structure and nominated board members to serve on the committee in its meeting Nov. 7.

“We understand this is an issue that is complex — many of those solutions aren’t easy — and this would be a topic we would need to continue to discuss throughout the year,” Penca said of the reason for the committee in the October meeting.

The committee is expected to meet monthly through the rest of this school year to discuss various aspects of the district’s transportation needs and how to respond to them. Recruitment is an upcoming topic, according to Penca.

“We’ve had some concerns about, with less staffing, some of the adjustments to routes and fuller buses, and then concerns about capacity on the buses, and so that would be our most urgent issue to tackle as a taskforce,” he said. “Because, again, without having more drivers to add, we can’t add routes — and then there are limits on the amount of hours per week that a driver can be behind the wheel, so it’s not like we can just have them drive more.”

The potential solution Penca mentioned in the October meeting was changing how FUSD defines transportation eligibility — which is what happened in this week’s announcement. Changes or recommendations resulting from this committee would both be brought to the board and announced to affected families as soon as possible, he said.

A transportation update covering the recent changes and additional information for district families is on the agenda for next week’s FUSD board meeting.

Earlier in the Oct. 24 meeting, one parent had brought up the crowded buses as an issue in a public comment.

Among the things Koren Brown, who has two children attending FUSD schools, listed as contributing to the “chaos” on the bus was the lack of assigned seating and supervision. She asked the district to assign seats, establish bus expectations, add personnel supervision, and issue warnings to students and their families for misbehavior, followed by removal from the bus when necessary.

“As a parent, I’m concerned that this is escalating unchecked and we’re looking at a potential violent or unsafe situation,” she said. “I’m asking the board to tackle this issue before it gets worse. This is an opportunity to address the conduct proactively, to cultivate a safer and more positive culture for our students and teach them how to step up and be leaders rather than antagonists.”

Getting to school

With this week’s route changes, several district families will now need to determine other ways for their children to get to school after winter break ends. The district has offered to purchase spring semester Mountain Line bus passes for students affected by these changes that Mountain Line’s website lists as costing $49 per K-12 student for a single semester.

If 300 students request bus passes, the will cost the district $14,700, a total that Fleming said was equivalent to less than half a bus driver’s salary. FUSD’s announcement said it plans to send additional information to affected families as well as information about Mountain Line passes and routes.

By offering bus passes, the district could be adding hundreds of students to those already using Mountain Line routes to get to school — which includes students at several Flagstaff charter schools.

Mountain Line has also been affected by the national driver shortage, making changes to some of its routes, including a reduction in frequency to Northern Arizona University’s campus earlier this year. In August, CEO Heather Dalmolin estimated that it needed an additional 10 to 15 drivers for full staffing.

Fleming said the district had met with Mountain Line during this process, and it had said its overall capacity would not be affected.

“Mountain Line is prepared and can provide safe and reliable transportation for FUSD families,” according to an item on the agenda for an upcoming FUSD board meeting. “They already transport hundreds of students to and from school daily, and they look forward to welcoming more students to public transportation.”

FUSD has also scheduled in-person information sessions with Mountain Line and district employees for families at each of its middle and high schools over the next two weeks.

“As superintendent, I regret the inconvenience this will cause FUSD students and families, and the need to implement these changes mid-year,” Penca said. “I am grateful for the understanding many have expressed and the willingness of FUSD staff, parents, and community partners — especially Mountain Line — to be thought partners in addressing these issues.”

Penca and Fleming both said they expected these changes would continue into future school years, with Penca adding, “unless we see a significant increase in driver recruitment and retention.” He encouraged locals to consider applying for FUSD transportation jobs.

“These are pretty significant changes,” Fleming said. “I think it would not be easy to undo it.”

He said FUSD plans to assess the effectiveness of these changes throughout the spring semester to determine if additional adjustments will be needed. The first change the district might eventually consider to expand eligibility would likely be to the qualifying walking distance adjusted in August, rather than these groups, he said.

The district plans to notify families in advance if any other changes are necessary.

A transportation update is on the agenda for FUSD’s next board meeting (Item 9A), which is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 12. The meeting will be held in-person at the District Administrative Center (3285 E. Sparrow Ave.), and streamed at vimeo.com/fusd1.

Additional information about transportation at FUSD can be found at fusd1.org/domain/33. Information about Mountain Line services is available at mountainline.az.gov.

Source: Arizona Daily Sun