RARITAN, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Board of Education has several possible transportation plans to choose from in conjunction with possibly changing school starting times in the district.
Transportation expert Jerry Ford staged a short presentation Dec. 10 to discuss seven different transportation options the district could employ for school busing if they moved start times later.
Slides from the presentation are available on the district’s web site at brrsd.org.
Superintendent Russell Lazovick said the district had been working with collaborators across the county and state about changing school starting times.
“This is an issue we wanted to pursue,” he said.
To that end, the school board brought in an expert to discuss transportation options for shifting school schedules, which were not necessarily “good or bad,” as Lazovick said, but would give board members a chance to see what those options might look like.
Lazovick added that the different options could aid the board in making changes, and determine what direction the district might be headed for on the matter.
Ford said he had worked for 45 years in the transportation field, including almost 25 years working with school boards and 11 years in the Bridgewater-Raritan district from 1996 to 2007. The goal of his presentation was to provide transportation scheduling alternatives, particularly with a later high school daily starting time.
Ford said there were a number of assumptions in the presentation, including that the current transportation system worked well, with both route data times and route costs valid. The study applied only to large school buses transporting regular education students, with a compressed method of bus routes.
The current tier system of school busing for Bridgewater-Raritan involves 44 buses on the high school level, 32 on the middle school level, 56 on the primary school level and 32 on the intermediate school level. The earliest pickup time for Bridgewater-Raritan High School students is 6:35 a.m., with students getting to school around 7:20 a.m. for a seven-hour school day that ends around 2:21 p.m., with drop-off around 3:06 p.m.
The general amount of time for high school students to spend on the bus currently is roughly 45 minutes, the same amount of time for intermediate school students. Primary and middle school bus routes take about 40 minutes apiece.
Concerning the 44 high school buses, Ford said that 25 of them were also utilized for primary school routes, and nine for intermediate routes. Eight buses handle high school, primary and intermediate routes.
Of the 32 middle school buses, 16 are also used for primary school routes and eight for intermediate routes.
Utilizing the current tier of bus schedules with starting times shifted, high school students would begin to be picked up around 7:20 a.m., get to school about 8:05 a.m., and end the day around 3:06 p.m., with drop-off around 3:50 p.m. The duration of the routes would remain unchanged.
A second option called for tiering the 44 high school buses with the 32 intermediate school buses, and the 32 middle school buses with the 56 primary school buses. To accomplish this option, Ford pointed out that 24 additional, single-route buses would be needed for the afternoons, at a total cost of $1,188,000, or $49,500 per bus.
“Contractors want a minimum price for their buses,” said Ford, which he added was not contingent on the number of bus routes driven.
He also said that contractors want to average some $55,000 to $60,000 per bus in their fleets.
A third option tiered the high school with the primary schools, and the middle school with the intermediate schools. That option would require 12 single routes, again at a cost of $49,500 apiece, and a total cost of $594,000.
The most expensive option of all was the fourth, which would encompass 152 single bus routes. The benefit of that option would be that the district could set school start and dismissal times at will, but the downside is that there are currently not enough bus drivers to handle all those routes.
The price tag would also be upwards of $7,524,000.
The least expensive option “flipped” the secondary and elementary school levels.
Ford said that route time data exists for all schools, and that making it to a second tier is not a problem.
“Twenty-eight of 44 high school buses can make it to the primary schools,” he said.
He also pointed out that second-tier routes could be converted to three-tier routes, although that would require further analysis. He added that, in general, the district’s own bus drivers usually handle three different kinds of school routes, while contracted bus drivers usually do two.
The district also does not share its own buses with other districts, although contractors sometimes share theirs.
Ford said that counts have been done, for the sake of efficiency, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Those counts include how many students were riding the buses, and how many were supposed to be on buses, to ensure that vehicles are not overloaded with riders, which could possibly happen in those parts of the school year that fall between sports seasons.
“The length of day differs dramatically by level,” Lazovick said. “At the high school, (seat) time is still an issue.”
Board member Melanie Thiesse pointed out that a lot of that could be due to the size of the high school campus that students have to cross daily.
Lazovick said the district has to handle the transportation situation appropriately, and that it will not be accomplished overnight. He also said he doesn’t know if the transition would require a full year or not, and that it might behoove the district to stay closer to its current model due to the limited amount of bus drivers available.
“They’re increasingly difficult to find,” he said. “It’s always a concern.”
There were also concerns raised about the length of bus routes. Elementary school routes are generally shorter, but that is not the necessarily the case with Crim School, given its location.
Board president Jill Gladstone said this is a larger process than she had imagined, and later said that even going to an 8 a.m. start time would be a “big improvement.”
Board member Zachary Malek said the board has to perform its due diligence on the matter, especially if a new schedule is to be implemented as soon as possible, and they also have to give the public time to comment on the topic.
Parent Jessica Levitt, who has long championed later school start times for student health reasons, said time is need to “digest all this information.” She also asked if Lazovick would make any recommendations, and said she felt disappointed that the plan will likely not be implemented next year.
“We could drag this out for years with no plan,” she said.
Lazovick said meetings are also being held with athletic directors and other superintendents in Somerset County, and that changes could also impact the Somerset County Vocational & Technical High School. He said the majority of school sports would likely not be affected by transportation schedule changes, unless long distance travel to opponents located farther away is involved, or if other districts don’t move their school starting times.
“If we shift, and no one else does, there will be an impact,” Lazovick said.
The board did not vote on the transportation issue that evening, and is also not expected to reach a decision at its next regular meeting Dec. 17, at the John F. Kennedy Primary School, in Raritan.
“This is much bigger than the time we’re allotting ourselves,” said board member Lynn Hurley. “We need to do it right.”