After two years of stalled efforts, the Essex Westford School District says it’s finally on track to offer busing to all eligible K-8 students in the village. But while school officials share excitement over the new plan, they’re also seeking to temper expectations.
“I do want people to understand that the system – we acknowledge the system isn’t perfect,” said EWSD transportation manager Jamie Smith. “It is the system, given the resources we have, that we can provide right now.”
The district will outline its new transportation plan at an informational meeting August 13. Headlining the changes are three new bus routes in Essex Jct., which break up the village into three zones and run on 20-minute loops. Students who live outside of the district’s designated walking zones – a half mile for grades K-5 and a mile for grades 6-8 – will be eligible to ride the buses.
Given the difficulty of recruiting and retaining drivers, Smith and the EWSD team understood that they could not bank on increasing the total number of buses on the road any time soon. So to achieve some level of service in the village they had to redesign the system using their current resources.
They set their sights on three buses serving town high school students this past school year. The district’s contractor, Mountain Transit, convinced several people to come out of retirement to drive those buses – a move Smith described as a “hail mary” attempt to ensure all town students had at least some version of transportation.
But looking over the numbers, school officials saw only 17 percent of eligible students had used the service, so the district reassigned I those buses to the new village routes and integrated high school routes into the town’s existing K-8 routes, meaning some buses will transport all age groups.
The district also had to slightly expand the walking zone to accommodate the changes. Now, high school students living within three-quarters of a mile of GMT’s line through Essex Center will have to use public transportation if they want a ride to school. Smith said the change reflects standards from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In light of the reshuffling, the only students who now won’t have some level of transportation this school year are high schoolers in the village – a fact that aligns well with the school board’s updated transportation policy, Smith said. Revised last year, that policy calls on the district to prioritize resources for the most “vulnerable” student populations.
“Those are the least vulnerable students that we have,” Smith said of village high schoolers, noting they have the most access to public infrastructure such as sidewalks and crossing guards. Plus, Smith said, many village high school students still have more opportunities for public transportation than previously, since any student within three-quarters of a mile of a GMT route can still access the public buses just like their town counterparts.
“We are asking them to walk, but they do have this added ability,” Smith said.
The village expansion arrives on the heels of some good news shared with the school board earlier this summer: of the 18 drivers who ended last school year, 17 said they will stay on board for 2019.
With retention comes a better chance at increasing the district’s fleet of drivers; instead of replacing open positions, it can put new drivers on new buses and increase service levels. And Mt. Transit reported last month that it has two drivers in the pipeline, which would bring EWSD up to 19 drivers if both completed training.
But Smith said experience shows “you never have enough people in the pipeline.”
“Last year, we started the school year with 18 drivers,” he explained. “We replaced nine of them throughout the course of the year.” Those nine licensed drivers came from more than 100 applicants, he said.
“The next three or four people in the pipeline is going to be a holding pattern,” he said.
If the district somehow manages to bolster its fleet, it will need to figure out what to do next. One option is to backfill the town routes that the village ones displaced. The other is to use the new drivers to bolster the current system.
Smith he noted that while the village system has been tested on paper, “there’s still a lot of question marks” about how it will work. Meanwhile, some middle school students in both the town and the village are waiting upwards of 45 minutes for a bus in the afternoons.
“We basically shoehorned a solution into place given the resources that we have. There are models that would make our system a lot better for everybody … if we have additional assets to employ.”
“Improving [the existing] system may take precedence over providing service to high school students,” he added, though he said the district will likely tackle that question only if and when it has more bus drivers than routes for them to drive.
Either way, he said, “I’d love to have that problem.”
This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate distance from which village students must live from their school to be eligible to ride the bus.