Keeping track of those numbers and the bus routes attached to them could be a daunting task, but it is one the system's transportation department has handled in the past. But department officials are perhaps handling it even better this year as they use a computer program that can create and amend routes with a few mouse clicks and keyboard taps.
Transportation Director Jody Elrod said that while his department purchased the Versatrans Solution transportation software several years ago, the district this year has been able to get more use out of it after inputting detailed county maps and merging the software with the student records database.
"It eliminates us from doing everything manually," Elrod said. "The old way was to make copies of maps out of the map book and draw the routes in. We didn't have a good way of identifying exactly how many kids were on a route -- it was just through trial and error, especially at the beginning of the year. Now we can go in, and the student information system that they keep at the central office imports nightly into our routing system, so when we have a new kid enroll in school, we immediately know about it and we can get that kid routed for a school bus. It will identify every kid that lives on that route, and what we do is get with the drivers and go in and see which kids ride, which kids don't ride.
"We may have a bus route that has 125 kids that actually live on the route, but obviously, they don't all ride -- we might have 60 of them that choose to ride the bus. This program helps us identify the kids that are riding and helps us coordinate our routes better."
Better coordination of the routes has its advantages. So far this year, Elrod's department has been able to consolidate 11 routes, which likely will equate to some cost savings by the end of the school year.
"Out of those 11 routes, daily-wise it may not seem like that many miles, but when you times it times 177 days, which is our school year this year, it adds up to be quite a good bit of miles," Elrod said. "It's not only just the fuel savings -- when you consider the wear and tear on the bus and all the things it entails by running fewer miles, it can be a tremendous savings for the district. With the budget, especially the way it is now, if we can save a dollar we've got to look to do that while still providing safe transportation for our students.
"In a lot of cases, the system showed us how, instead of running it by picking up elementary, going and dropping off and then coming back and doing middle/high, we could split it up between enough buses to pick them all up at one time. What that does is eliminate extra miles traveled on the road, and we can get them all picked up at one time," he added.
Elrod added that drivers may run more than one route over the course of the day. He cited the example of a driver that runs out of the Hamilton Crossing Elementary area who has three morning and three afternoon routes due to the close proximity and number of students. The driver's first route alone, he said, has 65 kids getting on at one stop on Mac Johnson Road, who are then dropped off at their school before going back to gather another load.
Should district leaders desire to do so in the future, Elrod said the program also can re-district students based on given parameters, such as a need to move a certain number of students in or out of a school.
Another monetary benefit for the district is the program's ability to print out a "state superintendent's report" -- a document showing how many bus riders live more than 1.5 miles away from their school. That report is important as the district receives funding only for transporting kids who live at least that far away from their education destination.
Parents already have potentially seen the benefits of the Versatrans program this year. In past years, each school's open house offered to parents a list of roads within the school's service area. Beside each road, Elrod said, would be the number of the bus serving that road and the time it would turn onto the road; however, it would not have the exact pickup time for a subdivision or address.
"The Versatrans system actually identifies to the minute what the bus pickup time is. It takes into account that bus running those couple of neighborhoods before it comes back onto a road," Elrod said, adding that the system also considers speed limits, stop signs and traffic lights along a route.
"In the past, we were guessing as far as times, how long it would take," he added. "It's been really beneficial for us to be able to give parents a more-exact time that the school bus is going to be there."
The routing system also benefits the drivers. Carol Garlin, dispatcher for the transportation department, said the program can easily produce maps and directions for drivers, who have embraced such information.
"It gives our driver turn-by-turn, detailed instructions, so there shouldn't be a driver lost out there by these," Garlin said. "We've had a lot of positive feedback from our veteran drivers, [who've said] it's really worked for them, and our subs -- I've sent a sub out the last two mornings with these directions, and no problem."
Elrod said that while it remains to be seen how many more routes might be eliminated this year -- he expects ridership numbers to stabilize around the fourth week of school -- his department won't have to re-route buses in the middle of the year due to the opening of the new Cass High School. The opening of the new school was taken into account when routes were created and will not change when Cass students start going there Jan. 4.
"As we get more into [the year] and get our student numbers really accounted for and [determine] how many's riding and exactly how many's not, we may be able to combine more and maybe even eliminate more routes," Elrod said. "Early in the year, it's so hard to tell because a lot of the parents like to take their kids to school the first week or two, and then they'll start riding the bus. Once we get past that point, we'll re-evaluate our numbers and see where we're at and see if we can consolidate even more.
"I think we've only scratched the surface as to what all capabilities this thing has."