Evaluating Routes for Efficiency and Equality Written by Debbie Curtis


here are many reasons why school districts might adjust bell times. One solution to the driver shortage is to add another tier so transportation departments can manage

routes with fewer drivers. Fewer students on consolidated routes during the pandemic provided a brief respite from the driver shortage for some districts. However, many drivers found other employment during the pandem- ic. Returning to pre-pandemic staffing is a challenge as many drivers found higher pay, more hours, or even freedom from random drug-tests in their new jobs. The Denver Public Schools transportation department

once dealt with 21 tiers of bell times, serving 160 schools. Albert Samora, executive director of transportation for the district, had prior experience reorganizing bell times 30 miles to the northwest at Boulder Public Schools in Colorado, so he wanted to maintain the autonomy of his new department while working toward more efficiency. “One of my goals is to make the routing more efficient

so we can help our underserved students by being able to provide transportation for after school programs, and overall have more equity across the district, especially in marginalized populations,” Samora said. “For the last four years, we’ve been about 50 drivers short. Another goal is to cut back on our contracted routes and get that work back for our own drivers.” For years the Denver team has been using a tool devel-

oped by Georgia Tech University, and this past year the district began partnering with Northwestern University in Illinois to further increase efficiency. “These graduate students have developed geocode algorithms to make our routes more efficient, but the partnership aspect comes into play because there are also times when we notice things and provide feedback that could improve their work,” Samora explained. More efficient routing is bringing last year’s 220 routes

down to about 160 routes. “It’s the national shortage of CDL drivers that is the biggest problem,” Samora com- mented. “We knew that it would be difficult to get our schools back to a more restricted system, but we did manage to reduce our bell times down from 21 tiers to three tiers with windows. Instead of a 7:30 tier, it’s the

7:30 to 7:40 a.m. tier. We have an 8:05 to 8:25 a.m. tier, and an 8:50 to 9:10 a.m. tier. This created some flexibil- ity. For example, we could move a school from one end of a tier to another.” The second critical issue was 18 different lengths

of the instructional day, which varied from 6.5 to 8.25 hours. Conversations with the board of education, the central office, and the school principals resulted in the creation of three day-length options. Bell times were strategically placed so the afternoon times are close to falling in tiers, Samora said. He shared he is gearing up to aggressively start re-

cruiting drivers and has doubled his training team, while being cautiously optimistic about factors such as the economy and unemployment that affect the number of driver applicants.

Creativity Beyond Bell Time Adjustments For the TransPar Group of Companies, more effec-

tive routing means coming up with even more creative solutions for getting the transportation departments it manages back up to speed. “We’re trying to keep every- one happy, but raising wages isn’t an option for many schools, and a lot of drivers have gone out and found jobs that have a 40-hour work week,” said Jake Murphy, who oversees TransPar’s operations in Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania. “Pre-COVID-19, one of our districts needed about 160 drivers to fill a three-tier system. During the past year, we could trim that by 30 drivers, but to get back up to the same staffing level by fall, we’re not even going to be close to having enough drivers.” The best option for that district was to change the

third-tier bell time by 15 minutes, he said, but the teach- er’s union absolutely refused to budge on the issue. “Our job is to come up with solutions and present them to the school,” Murphy explained. “We might suggest using a third-party like a cab company for some smaller routes or raising the rates for a charter school’s transportation. These options aren’t as safe as having the students on a school bus, but if the school won’t budge on bell times, we have to think of other ways to get the students to school.” 43

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