PUYALLUP, Wash. — As thousands of students head back to class in the Puyallup School District this year, some of their families are concerned about the impacts of new bell schedules and bus routes.
The district says it’s the solution to bus driver shortages that led to delays and cancellations last year.
“I’m skeptical,” Julie Callen said. Callen’s children attend three Puyallup schools: Aylen Junior High, Kalles Junior High, and Spinning Elementary. “I don’t know that they will have the number of bus drivers needed to run these bus routes the way they say they’re going to.”
“It sounds like you’re worried these changes won’t actually solve anything,” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon said.
“Oh, I don’t think they will at all,” she said. “I think that they’ll just mean that more buses are running late because they’re running into more traffic.”
“Because they’re later?” Sheldon asked.
“Because they’re later,” Callen said.
Fifteen elementary schools will now get out at 3:51 p.m., including Spinning.
According to the district, school start and end times have changed from five minutes to an hour fifteen minutes. Zeiger Elementary used to start at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday through Friday; it will now start at 9:30 a.m.
“Is the district concerned about traffic being worse around these schools that are getting out later?” Sheldon asked Puyallup School District’s Executive Director of Communications Sarah Gillispie.
“Absolutely,” she said. “So we are reviewing the possibility of possibly telling parents to wait a number of minutes after the buses are able to load and pick up students and get started on their routes. And then families can come in and pick up pickup students because it absolutely leads to that congestion in the area.”
Gillispie said once school starts, the district will figure out if this step is needed at certain schools.
But she said the district is confident about the number of drivers it has this year.
She said last year, the district had about 112 bus routes.
“We are now down to approximately 102 routes and we have 104 drivers who will drive those routes,” she said. “So right out [of] the gate, when school starts, we know that we have enough drivers to support all of our runs. That wasn’t the case last year.”
“What we don’t have is the appropriate number… of substitute drivers,” Gillispie said. “So what they mean is that if we have an increase in absenteeism due to sickness or to vacations, it will impact our ability to service those runs.”
Gillispie said in a case like that, the district may employ something similar to a snow route model.
“So parents know what their secondary bus location could be in instances like that,” she said. “That information is still being reviewed. In fact, it will be presented to our school board later in the month of September.”
“I think it’s going to be really bad,” Heather Doornbos said. Her son Maverick attends Edgerton Elementary. Doornbos believes the later dismissal time will make it more of a rush for after-school activities and tough for appointments.
“We actually just found out today my son’s dentist… he’s not doing pediatrics after 3:00 p.m.,” she said. “So now I’ve got to pull my son out and miss more school.”
She’s aware the district put together a team of students, staff, and community members to work with a consultant.
“It just doesn’t seem like… whatever money they spent was worth it,” she said. “So where did that money go?”
“It’s a cost savings,” Gillispie said. “Our buses now are being routed efficiently and saving on the amount of mileage that they’re traversing throughout our district, which equates to a savings in fuel.”
She said the task force worked with Strategic School Consultants, a company based in Wenatchee. The district said it paid $373,940 for system analysis, dispatch, routing, staff training, and other work.
KIRO 7 contacted Strategic School Consultants and asked what other big school district the company has worked with on these types of changes. A spokesperson said it’s worked with districts “of many sizes throughout Washington, Texas, and California” but did not respond to a follow-up question once again asking for the names of the specific school districts.
Parents also voiced frustration over an app called Ride 360.
“The alerts from that app were never consistent,” parent Julie Callen said.
The district said it pays $6,000 a year for its subscription to the app, which provides information about bus stop locations and pick-up and drop-off times. This year, the district won’t be relying on it to tell families about any delays, but rather its own system with phone calls, texts, and emails.
As the school year starts, Doornbos said families and school officials have to stay positive.
“I think it’s going to be frustrating, but we can’t let the kids see that,” she said.
©2023 Cox Media Group