Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Gary Blizzard, president of the Magnolia ISD board of trustees.
Hundreds of community members showed up to an Aug. 19 Magnolia ISD board of trustees meeting to express safety concerns regarding the district’s new bus route strategy, rolled out just a few weeks before the first day of school. 20 individuals were permitted to speak.
The district’s new bus route strategy
for the 2019-20 school year was implemented about two weeks prior to Aug. 14, the first day of school, said Joe Dives, MISD executive director of support services. The strategy reduces the number of stops buses are required to make, thus reducing ride times and allowing for later pickups and earlier arrivals, as MISD officials previously said during a July 22 board of trustees meeting.
While the district could save between $600,000 and $900,000 due to the bus route changes, expenses are not the only focus in addressing the district’s bus routes, said Gary Blizzard, president of the Magnolia ISD board of trustees, in an email.
“The primary reason [for the change]is due to the severe, ongoing shortage of quality bus drivers affecting many school districts in Texas. Our focus in MISD transportation is and always has been getting students to and from school safely,” Blizzard said in an email. “In fact, if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters.”
The new strategy eliminated eight bus routes, which reduced the number of buses and bus drivers needed to transport riders—a response to a statewide bus driver shortage, MISD Director of Communications Denise Meyers said in an interview. MISD ended the 2018-19 school year 15 bus drivers short, Dives said in an interview, and the district was one bus driver short for the 2019-20 school year as of publication Aug. 21.
“The number of bus drivers fluctuates constantly, and that’s not exclusive to Magnolia ISD. This is a problem across the state that I wish we had the answer to, but we just don’t right now,” he said.
While Dives said in his July 22 presentation that the district could save between $600,000 and $900,000 due to the new route strategy, Blizzard said cost is not the sole reason for this route change.
In the 2018-19 school year, MISD spent $513 in transportation funds on average per student, according to Texas Education Agency data
. The state average for the 2018-19 school year was $303 per student, TEA data shows.
“It is important to realize that, for years, we have been spending roughly twice as much on transportation as compared to the average district across the state,” Blizzard said in an email. “Therefore, if cost were the key reason for making changes, we would have made changes long ago.”
Part of the new strategy also includes prohibiting travel down streets where a bus would be required to turn around, which has caused some neighborhoods to see significant bus-stop consolidation this school year, Meyers said. This means some students are required to walk more than one mile to the new stop, and some stops may be located on busy streets, such as Nichols Sawmill Road and FM 1488, which has caused safety concerns among parents.
“[My son] would have to be picked up on FM 1488 and Buckshot Lane, [and]there have been several accidents at that stop sign. There was a school bus that was actually rear-ended there by a pickup truck a few years ago,” said MISD parent Beverly Townsend during the Aug. 19 meeting. “I don’t think I should have to risk my child’s life to get him on the bus.”
However, the district has moved several bus stops off major roads, including one located on FM 1488 in the Alford Estates subdivision, in response to concerns from parents about the safety of their children while waiting for the bus. The district evaluated concerns and moved the bus stop inside the neighborhood, Dives said.
“It’s truly a partnership between the district and parents in terms of child safety. We want to be that partner, so we need to hear those concerns so we can evaluate what the possible solutions are,” Meyers said.
Other parents said during the Aug. 19 meeting that some bus stops are located along streets without proper sidewalks or lighting, making it difficult for students to safely walk to the bus stop, and are located near residences of registered sex offenders.
“There’s no sidewalks … no streetlights, and at the corner of our new bus stop, there’s five level-five sex offenders that all have [charges of]indecency with a child under the age of 13,” MISD parent Michael Johnson said during the Aug. 19 meeting. “But that’s safe for our kids to go there?”
However, Meyers said sidewalk and lighting placement is out of the district’s control.
As some parents have expressed concern about the timing of bus pickups due to work schedules, the district decided Aug. 20 to remove the $10 weekly charge for early-morning child care in response to working-parent concerns, Meyers said. Early-morning child care is available beginning at 6:30 a.m. for all elementary and intermediate schools, she said
“The board did listen [to the parents]. They’re looking at all options, which [include]logistics that come into play: the shortage of [bus]drivers; drivers covering the 150 square miles of our district; and still making sure we get our kids to school on time,” Meyers said.