Milton struggling with longer bus rides for students

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, October 21, 2012

— Noah and Jaime Lamson say they're through with their son Samuel riding the bus home from school.

The Lamsons say it takes Samuel, a kindergartner at Milton West Elementary School, an hour and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute layover during a bus transfer, to get home from school.

Sometimes the commute takes longer, and once last month, Samuel never showed up at home.

That's because he got on the wrong bus while switching buses at the transfer hub at Northside Intermediate School in Milton, the Lamsons said.

Jaime Lamson said Samuel was missing an hour before the school district and Riteway bus, the district's transportation contractor, could track down what bus he was on.

"Think about everything that goes through your mind. We live an hour from the state line. He was missing for an hour. You think about what could happen. It's frightening," she said.

The Lamsons are now picking up Samuel from school and driving him straight to their home, which is on Highway 51 near the Rock River Thresheree grounds. The trip takes 10 minutes.

They say it beats the nearly eight hours a week Samuel had spent on his bus commute. Plus, they've got lingering concerns about his safety during bus transfers.

Other parents have aired concerns with the district and in open letters to The Gazette about some of Milton school bus routes taking at least an hour and 20 minutes.

One parent, Lisa Messer, told the school board she can't believe a Riteway bus driver won't allow her child use a pencil to do his homework during his hour-long bus rides to and from school.

The Lamsons say they're considering enrolling Samuel in a different district.

The district's bus woes come amid talks about whether the district could cut short a multi-year transportation contract with Riteway, one board member said.

Last week, the board's transportation committee observed the bus transfer process at Northside Intermediate to look into potential student safety issues.

District officials are in the early stages of evaluating bus trip times, which one school-level administrator said have increased as much as 15 to 20 minutes for some routes—partly because of construction and traffic detours near the Highway 26 project.

Construction junction, what's your dysfunction?

According to school records, at least one-half of all middle school and high school students in the district live in the southern and eastern ends of the district.

Those portions of the district are adjacent to the Highway 26/Highway 59 corridor—parts of which have been under construction since spring.

Some roads adjacent to Highway 26 and Highway 59 have seen closures. Others have become congested detours for local motorists trying to dodge construction. That's added 10 to 20 minutes of bus time a day for students on some routes, Milton East Elementary Principal Theresa Rusch said.

"They've all been rerouted around there. There's no doubt. It makes a longer day," said Rusch, who is also one of the district's transportation coordinators.

The delay happens in part, Rusch explained, because the district runs busing in two waves—one starting at 3 p.m. for high school and middle school students and a later wave of routes for the elementary kids.

After the first wave is complete, the buses double back and pick up students who let out at 3:30 p.m. at Milton's four elementary schools. The buses then head to the district's central bus transfer site at Northside Intermediate School.

A crew of school staff and student patrols at the transfer site guide more than 500 students to their proper buses, which park in a two-row semicircle in the parking lot.

The exchange has operated the same way for about 10 years, and it takes about 15 minutes on a good day, Northside Intermediate Principal Sarah Stuckey said.

Some days, those routes run on pace with routes in past years. But on days when construction work is heavy, Rusch said, the routes can fall behind.

On the trail

A Gazette reporter recently trailed one of Riteway's routes—a bus that drops off students in subdivisions off Harmony-Town Hall Road and Wright Road in Janesville.

It took the bus until about 4:30 p.m. to drop off its final student on its 9.2-mile route, and it arrived back at the Riteway Garage at 4:43 p.m.

The bus along with the others had left the transfer stop at Northside Intermediate at about 3:55 p.m.

Riteway did not have data available on its latest drop-off times that day, but a Gazette reporter observed the bulk of buses returning to the Riteway terminal between 4:45 and 4:55 p.m. The last bus in the field returned at 5:04 p.m.

In an interview earlier that same day, Casey Longhenry, Riteway's Milton garage manager, did not bring up the issue of construction delays. She denied it was taking until nearly 5 p.m. to drop off some students.

Longhenry said she had asked the district to look into individual complaints about long bus rides. She said the Milton terminal has more than 30 routes, and she deferred comment on bus commute times for individual students to Milton School Superintendent Mike Garrow.

Garrow declined to comment on the situation specifically, saying he has a "55,000-foot view" of it.

Longhenry said the bus company gets classroom rosters and uses computer software it's operated for nearly a decade to map out the most efficient bus routes.

She said traffic backups, trains and bus disciplinary issues can sometimes cause delays.

Change of venue?

The Lamsons have asked the district to transfer Samuel from Milton West Elementary School to Consolidated Elementary School.

Consolidated, which is in rural Janesville, is closer to the Lamsons' home. Some neighbors with children who are bused to Consolidated have told the Lamsons it would knock 30 or 40 minutes a day off Samuel's riding time.

District sources say it's not that easy.

Rusch is in charge of placing K-3 students at district schools. It's a juggling act of calculating distances from student homes to area schools and balancing class sizes around a district that spans 100 square miles.

Rusch explained the district decided to send Samuel and several other students who live near the Lamsons to Milton West instead of Consolidated in large part because the district is struggling to balance class sizes.

Subdivisions near the Lamsons have grown so much in recent years that there simply isn't room at Consolidated for all the students who live within a convenient busing distance from the school.

She said moving Samuel to Consolidated would throw off the balance in kindergarten classes, and it would be unfair to the Lamsons' neighbors, who wouldn't get the same option.

Jaime Lamson said the district has offered to put Samuel on a different transfer bus and to have staff escort him daily to make sure he gets on the right bus, but that wouldn't change the length of time he rides every day, Jaime Lamson said.

"And I refuse to let him transfer buses," she said.

Wilson Leong, who is school board vice president and a member of the district transportation committee, said the board is taking concerns about bus transfers seriously.

He said the transportation committee has yet to sink its teeth into the issue of 75-minute bus commutes.

"My initial feeling would be, well, that seems a little long, but let's find out what's causing that and why," Leong said.

Rusch said it might benefit the district to have a detailed study for bus times, although she said the district doesn't have a rule of thumb for what is too long to ride a bus.

Garrow said the district has looked at the option of consolidating busing into one wave for all students, which would shorten commutes dramatically.

Beyond logistical challenges of coordinating a single bus run, such an arrangement could cost as much as $1 million more a year, Garrow said.

He called the option "prohibitively expensive."

Leong said when the district enters budget talks and negotiations with Riteway over the district busing contract, the board could explore such options. He said the board must balance district needs with individual needs.

"You always want what's best for your kid. My role is I have to look at the bigger picture. To take care of one individual may spur five or six other issues. That's the dilemma," he said.

In any case, area highway construction isn't ending anytime soon.

Work on Highway 26 will linger into next year. That will mean more traffic delays and more closures, officials say.

In 2015, the state will start work to expand Interstate 90/39. That project will take several years, state officials say.

One state official, 43rd Assembly District Rep. Evan Wynn, has suggested Harmony-Town Hall Road could see a heavier load of traffic when the I-90/39 project starts.

Based on preliminary state plans, he's said the road could be part of a detour to reroute traffic to Highway 26 during the Interstate project.

It's a challenge that has few clear answers.

Rusch said it's not clear if it would be viable for the district to pay for a half-dozen or more extra buses to combat construction delays.

"There's just not a lot Riteway or anyone can do about road construction," she said.

Last updated: 4:47 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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