HARVARD — How long is too long for a child to ride to school on a bus?
That was the underlying question posed to the Harvard School Committee Monday night. Several parents reported trips in and out of school routinely stretching past the hour mark.
The problem was focused on “Bus No. 1,” in particular, and it’s a problem that’s extended two weeks into the new school year. The Bus No. 1 run covers both the Harvard Elementary School and the Bromfield Middle/High School.
School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson said while, “it’s typical for first day runs to take longer than usual, the data we have on Bus 1 is telling us it’s a bigger problem than that.”
Gokey & Quinn Bus Company of Ayer Road in Harvard has the district’s bus contract and is aware of the situation, according to Jefferson.
Jefferson said historically, Bus 1 has always been the longest bus run. Bus stops are not easily merged along that route and there are proportionately more kindergarten students on the route. More kindergarten students means more stops because “as a policy, those kids don’t get off at the general neighborhood stop,” said Jefferson.
Is over an hour too long?
The best case scenario is that the morning run takes an hour for Bromfield, and an hour 10 minutes for HES,” said Jefferson. “We’ve had runs at the end of the day that go beyond an hour and 35 minutes.”
“That’s not tenable. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not what we should be doing with our kids,” he said. “I don’t know what the ideal is. Twenty minutes is more realistic but we can’t always manage that.”
Jefferson proposed, as a starting point in discussions, the addition of another bus to divide the load on the Bus No. 1 route, at the cost of $199 a day for each of the 170 school days, or $33,830 through June. The sum prompted some gasps from the back of the room.
Jefferson said it isn’t as easy as shifting students to buses with shorter drive times. “The other buses are already pretty full.”
He defended the Gokey pricing. “We’re certainly not getting gouged here.” He was “cautious to recommend” dipping into projected surplus funds to pay for the added bus.
Rochelle Greayer of Pinnacle Road says since their home is located 1.9 miles from HES, the family pays to bus their first-grade daughter to ride Bus No. 1 to school. She called the situation the “worst-case scenario” because her daughter is always the last-on, last-off the bus for the morning and afternoon trips, respectively, and it’s gotten worse.
“Even last year she was on the bus for 45-50 minutes. Obviously this isn’t acceptable for us.” She resorted to driving her daughter in recent days in order to get her daughter to dancing lessons after school.
Greayer read aloud a letter from Rich and Joyce Maiore of Slough Road reporting even worse times. On the return trip for their kindergarten-aged daughter, homebound trips can span from 45 to 90 minutes, which the couple wrote is “far too long for a 5-year-old to be on a bus.”
Frank Anderson of Littleton County Road says his kindergarten son now refuses to take the bus because he’s fallen asleep twice on the extended duration runs that run an hour and 10 minutes. And its proven to be a real letdown for his son. “That was the most exciting thing for him in going to kindergarten,” said Anderson.
Shannon Kelley of Eldridge Road, near to the end of the route, has a fourth-grader that has ridden this bus since kindergarten. She recommended the driver be monitored along Eldridge and Pinnacle roads because sometimes the bus is on time to school and other times not.
“My son explained exactly where he was going and somehow they wound up on Route 117 by Bolton Orchards,” she said.
Kelley says the bus is actually disrupting all the students, because the students arrive late, deny late arrivers a chance to talk with teachers before class, disrupt hallways and seated students, and prompt the late arriving children to be made fun of because they’re disrupting their class, already underway.
“It’s affecting the teachers and the entire kids that are in there. If three kids enter late, that’s affecting every kid around them,” she said.
Parents suggested different driver names and their different track records on getting the run done on time. One parent said things fell apart after one driver’s departure last Christmas. Another parent reported she “almost got run off the road” by another driver.
Committee member Piali De said, “I would really like to know what’s happening on all our buses. How long are they riding? Is this a ‘creep’ where this bus goes longer every year? Given that the situation is worse at Bromfield, I don’t buy it that it’s because of kindergarten.”
Whether it’s drivers, drive times extending year by year, or the uptick in kindergarten students, the matter is now under review, with Jefferson to report back to the committee.
In the meantime and by week’s end or Monday at the latest, another bus at the rate of $199 a day was to be hired on an interim basis to split up the headcount aboard Bus No. 1.
The board opted against taking the full $34,000 requested to provide time for more investigation into the bus flap.
De suggested new routes to knock down ride times for all. “I’m happy to add another bus but I’d like to see a bus plan that gets everyone home in under 45 minutes.” That notion was not acted upon Monday night.
Jefferson was cautious to note that forcing drivers to drive busses faster isn’t an option. “This isn’t Dominos Pizza where we guarantee to deliver … in 20 minutes.”