In response to a nationwide and local driver shortage, the Bethlehem Central School District is proposing changes to bus transportation eligibility to reduce the number of bus routes districtwide, beginning next school year. The plan would require approval of the Board of Education and the approval of district voters as part of a public referendum.
More information about the plan can be found here. Some of the common questions that have been received by the district can be found below.
What is the current eligibility for bus transportation in the district?
- Elementary (K-5): Currently, all elementary students are eligible for bus transportation.
- Middle School (6-8) Currently, students living more 0.5 miles from school are eligible for transportation.
- High School (9-12): Currently, students living more than 1.0 miles from school are eligible for transportation.
What are the proposed changes to eligibility for bus transportation in the district?
- Elementary (K-5): As proposed, students living more than 0.75 miles from school would be eligible for transportation.
- Middle School (6-8): As proposed, students living more than 1.0 miles from school would be eligible for transportation.
- High School (9-12): As proposed, students living more than 1.5 miles from school would be eligible for transportation.
Why are these expanded “walk zones” being considered?
The expanded walk zones would reduce the number of students taking the bus, allowing the district to consolidate bus routes and reduce the number of bus drivers needed to staff these routes. There is a nationwide bus driver shortage that has been impacting school districts, including Bethlehem, for several years. This shortage has been compounded by the pandemic and a severe labor shortage. In order to properly staff all routes in 2021-22, the Transportation Department must rely on certified drivers in other roles (dispatchers, mechanics, etc.) to fill in at a moment’s notice.
The increased walk zones are part of a three-year effort to ensure the stability of the district’s Transportation Department:
- Year 1 (2021-22): Increase recruitment strategies and pay for drivers (Approved) Join our driver team starting at $23.60/hour.
- Year 2 (2022-23): Change transportation eligibility to expand walk zones around schools to reduce the number of district bus routes and drivers needed (In discussion)
- Year 3 (2023-24): Possible changes to bell times at elementary, middle and high school to improve bus efficiency and restore later start time at BCHS (Future discussion)
Are there maps of the “walk zones” being considered?
Yes. The Transportation Department has created maps of the walk zones that would be used if the changes to bus eligibility is approved.
- Eagle Elementary School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
- Elsmere Elementary School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
- Glenmont Elementary School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23*
- Hamagrael Elementary School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
- Slingerlands Elementary School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
- Bethlehem Central Middle School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
- Bethlehem Central High School – Proposed Walk Zone 2022-23
What kind of pay increases and incentives are being offered to attract and retain drivers?
The district has raised starting wages for bus drivers by 32% over two years, from $17.86 in 2020 to $23.60 in 2022. Bethlehem now offers the highest starting wage for bus drivers of any school district in Albany County. In addition, the district offers paid training at $20/hour to earn a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). There is a $1,000 retention bonus for new hires and a $600 referral bonus for staff who successfully recruit new hires. It is important to remember that all wages and incentives are subject to a collective bargaining process.
Doesn’t New York State require school districts to provide transportation to students?
Education Law requires that non-city school districts provide transportation for all children as follows:
- Grades K-8: Transportation must be provided for students living more than 2 miles from the school they attend, up to 15 miles
- Grades 9-12: Transportation must be provided for students living more than 3 miles from the school they attend, up to 15 miles
When school districts want to provide transportation services to students residing less than 2 miles from school (K-8) or 3 miles from school (9-12), a public referendum must be held to establish those distances.
I have heard the terms “two-tier” bus system and “three-tier” bus system. Can you explain the differences?
Three-tier bus system (used in current year 2021-22): Based on bell times and bus “turnaround” times, each bus driver completes three runs every morning and afternoon (one to the high school AND one to the middle school AND one to an elementary school). The ideal turnaround time between bus runs is 45 minutes. With a three-tier system, the district needs fewer drivers than with a two-tier system.
Two-tier bus system (used last year 2020-21): Based on bell times and bus “turnaround” times, each bus driver completes two runs every morning and afternoon. There was a two-tier system in place in 2020-21 when both the middle school and high school both started at approx. the same time (8 a.m.) and students in grades 7-12 attended school in person only every other day. With a limited number of students using bus transportation, drivers could complete only two runs every morning (to either the high school OR middle school AND to one of the elementary schools).
What is the process for approving the district’s proposed change to transportation eligibility?
The change must be approved by voters in a public referendum. Since fall 2021, the district has held several public meetings to discuss proposed changes to bus eligibility and has solicited feedback from parents and community members. This feedback is being reviewed by the Board of Education. The Board of Education must first approve a resolution for the changes to eligibility to appear on the ballot as a referendum. If a majority of district voters (50% plus one) approve the referendum, the new eligibility distances would be enacted.
If the Board of Education decides to move forward, when would the public referendum be held?
The Board of Education is expected to decide whether or not the district will move forward with this plan at its March 16 meeting. If the Board of Education decides to move forward, a referendum on the proposed changes would be held on Tuesday, May 17, the date of the annual budget vote and Board of Education election.
If the bus eligibility referendum passes, when would the new walk zones take effect?
If approved by the Board of Education and by a majority of voters, the changes would take effect for the start of the 2022-23 school year.
If the effort to expand walk zones fails, what would the impact be to student transportation?
If there is no adjustment to bus eligibility zones for 2022-23, families districtwide should prepare for longer ride times and more crowded buses as the district seeks areas of consolidation within existing routes.
Does a referendum need to be held any time a change to eligibility is made?
If the district were to adopt the more stringent NYS eligibility distances of two miles for grades K-8 and three miles for grades 9-12, no public referendum would be needed. The district is NOT considering such a move at this time, Moving to the NYS eligibility would only be considered if the bus driver shortage got much worse. Any other change within the two- and three-mile requirements would require voter approval.
How many routes would be consolidated by expanding walk zones and how many students would be impacted?
The district estimates it could save 4-5 routes at each level, requiring 4-5 fewer bus drivers. Approximately 700 students would lose eligibility for transportation. Not all of those students currently use district transportation.
How is the eligibility distance measured?
The eligibility thresholds are measured as the shortest driving distance between the child’s residence and the child’s school.
Please note that if a boundary bisects a particular street, the boundary may have been adjusted so as not to split a single block of homes into eligible and non-eligible students.
It seems like the eligibility distances were created just “to keep things even” regarding how many students would lose eligibility at each level (elementary, MS and HS)? This doesn’t seem like a good reason. Can you explain?
The reason the district is trying to “keep things even” is a practical one. Each driver covers one route at each level (elementary, MS and HS). To reduce the number of drivers needed every day, you would have to try to keep those totals at approximately the same level to be able to eliminate an entire daily route.
What can the district do to make the walk to school safer for students?
When not eligible for bus transportation, it is the responsibility of parents/guardians to ensure that students arrive at school and return home safely. The responsibility is the same for families when their students must travel to the bus stop. Bethlehem is one of the most walkable communities in the Capital Region. The school district will work with families and with the Town of Bethlehem and the Bethlehem Police Department to ensure routes to school are as safe as possible. The district will also explore expanded pick up/drop off windows, where the school provides supervision of students as a way to address the peak rush hour times.
If you have 59 drivers for 58 routes, isn’t that enough?
No. The district would need to hire at least 6-10 new permanent drivers to have enough to cover all routes effectively in the current three-tier bus system. The district does not have enough substitute drivers to fill in if someone is absent due to illness or personal reasons. The district has been relying on mechanics and other trained transportation staff to fill in when needed. This is not sustainable. Ideally, the district would have between 65-70 permanent drivers to staff all routes K-12. The job market is still not producing enough qualified candidates despite the recent 20% increase in the starting hourly wage for bus drivers (now at $23.60/hr).
At a recent meeting, the district reported it has seven driver candidates in the pipeline. Doesn’t this get you close to your hiring goals so you would not need to consider expanding walk zones?
We are pleased to have driver candidates in the “pipeline” and we hope it is a sign that the district is in a more competitive position than it has been. However, it is important to note that not all candidates go on to become drivers at BC. Sometimes, driver candidates complete training and go on to work elsewhere. Occasionally, driver candidates are unable to meet the certification requirements once they are trained. It is not an easy process. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the higher-than-average median age of our drivers means that retirements are often unpredictable.
Recruitment is only one piece of the puzzle. The district is looking at the expanded walk zones as another critical piece of a long-term solution to the bus driver shortage. Next year, the district will consider changing bell times at all three levels to ensure even greater stability in transportation services. Any proposed changes to bell times would not take place until 2023-24, at the earliest.
With the pandemic subsiding, the labor market will likely improve. Isn’t the proposed change a long-term solution to a short-term problem?
The bus driver shortage was compounded by COVID but it actually began prior to the pandemic. For several years, the district has been competing with other school district and other employers for a shrinking pool of potential drivers. This is a long-term problem that will, unfortunately, require an adjustment for some families.
It seems like by expanding walk zones, a districtwide problem is being absorbed by a small number of families. Will families who are losing transportation be compensated with a tax credit or funds for alternate transportation?
Walk zones within the district are not new. There are many families in the district currently who are not eligible for transportation (at the middle school and high school levels). Those families are not compensated. The cost of educating the community’s children and providing services that support education is a shared responsibility that is spread across the district. Also, it is important to remember there is inherent value to living within walking distance of one of our schools. Playgrounds, playing fields, tennis courts and other resources are more accessible for those families within these zones.
Can you open up parking at the high school for juniors?
The district is looking to expand parking opportunities for juniors. The high school is examining different options that would preserve the parking privileges for seniors but could maximize and encourage use of parking spaces at the high school and in the overflow lot adjacent to the Operations and Maintenance office.
If kindergarteners aren’t allowed off the bus without a guardian present, why would you allow them to walk to school?
Students are not required to walk. The “walk zone” as defined by the proposed map for each school is the area in which families are solely responsible for getting their child to and from school. The district will work with families and community agencies to ensure these zones are as safe as possible.
Outside of these zones, when a child takes the bus, this responsibility becomes a partnership. Parents and guardians must ensure that their children get to the bus stop safely and return home from bus stop safely. The school district assumes responsibility once the student boards the bus.
If the proposed walking distances are 1.5 miles for the high school and 1 mile for the middle school, how did you come up with ¾ mile for elementary?
The district initially looked at a half-mile walk distance for elementary. However, moving to a half-mile did not yield enough route reductions to adequately address the driver shortage. The goal is to reduce the number of drivers needed each day. Since each driver covers three routes (one each at the elementary, middle and high school), it is important to reduce the number of riders at each level in a relatively equal and balanced manner.
Why doesn’t the district consider using a third-party transportation vendor to cover the bus routes?
The use of outside transportation contractors is subject to collective bargaining. The district already contracts with third-party transportation vendors for athletics and field trips as needed. Unfortunately, the nationwide bus driver shortage affecting school districts is also impacting independent transportation providers. There have been times when the district had to cancel trips due to a complete lack of any available drivers, including contractors. The district also believes that retaining direct control over all phases of staffing and operations yields the best service. By using our own staff for daily transportation, we ensure that driver hiring and training, route scheduling, maintenance and all other aspects of student transportation meet the high standards we have in place at BC.
Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have GPS on the school buses? Sometimes we see a substitute driver who has to waste time looking at maps and directions to follow the route.
Yes, and it will be. District voters approved GPS technology to be installed on all buses in the district. This technology will be tested over the summer and will be in place for the start of the 2022-23 school year.
Why would the district spend money on electric buses instead of using money to hire more bus drivers?
There is no connection between the purchase of electric school buses and the bus driver shortage. The school district is committed to cleaner, more efficient transportation that is not reliant on fossil fuels. However, the district is leveraging grants and incentives where available. The district purchased five electric buses with the help of a $1 million grant it secured through New York State, bringing the cost of the buses in line with the diesel buses. Long term, electric buses are expected to provide significant operational savings to the district. The district must replace buses as they age when they cost more to maintain than to replace. The district also raised wages for bus drivers by 32% over two years, from $17.86 in 2020 to $23.60 in 2022. Bethlehem now offers the highest starting wage for bus drivers of any school district in Albany County.