GPS Could Help Pinpoint the Problem of School Bus Tardiness in Suffolk, Va.

A Virginia school division is trying to deal with chronic tardiness in its transportation department, which has to cover a large geographic area in a time of driver shortages.

by Mike Connors, The Virginian-Pilot / September 1, 2015 0
A Virginia school division plans to try GPS devices this year in an effort to improve on-time arrival. By Greg953, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

(TNS) — In recent years, some students have missed starting school on time because the bus picked them up late.

Afternoons would play out the same as parents have said they waited a long time for buses to drop off their children. Driver shortages compounded the problem.

Now, Suffolk Public Schools is turning to technology to track what's causing the delays — and hopefully help fix the problem.

The division is hoping to have GPS — which provides location and time data — in its buses early this school year, which begins Sept. 8.

A spokeswoman said last week the division was in final negotiations for a contract. The division, which has slightly more than 200 buses, has budgeted roughly $200,000, she said.

"This year, I think we'll be better off," said Mike Debranski, the School Board chairman.

In a survey of more than 3,100 parents released at a School Board retreat Aug. 20, only 69 percent agreed "this school's bus transportation meets my expectations." That was the lowest positive response to any of the 30 questions.

"If one bus is late, it ruins the entire schedule down the line," said Courtney Wolfe, who has three boys in Suffolk Public Schools.

Earlier this year, an independent consulting firm surveyed the division's transportation department. It noted that Suffolk has unique problems because of its size and diverse landscape. The city is physically the largest in Virginia with 430 square miles. The firm recommended installing GPS.

Officials said they think the systems will let them analyze routes to determine what changes need to be made. They'll also be able to inform parents more quickly whether a bus is running late.

Since July 2014, Virginia Beach has had GPS on 723 buses — essentially all the buses it uses on an average school day. The division has used the systems to pinpoint locations of buses in crashes, those experiencing mechanical problems or carrying students with medical or behavior issues. They also help direct substitute drivers in unfamiliar neighborhoods, a division spokeswoman said.

Norfolk and Portsmouth do not have GPS technology on buses. Chesapeake can pull audio or video from a hard drive and is exploring adding technology to allow for live views, said officials from those three divisions.

Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, estimates that between one-third and one-half of the nation's roughly 450,000 buses in use on an average school day have GPS. The numbers have spiked in the past five years.

"It enables the districts to know very, very quickly where their buses are," he said.

While Wolfe is optimistic GPS will help with Suffolk's problems, she has another concern. This year, middle schools will begin at 7:25 a.m., high schools at 8:25 a.m. and elementary schools at either 9:20 or 9:35 a.m.

That schedule was designed as a cost-saving measure. But it is too spread out, said Wolfe, who has one son each in elementary, middle and high school.

Division officials wanted to keep the same schedule after using three different ones the past three years. They plan to monitor how things go in the coming months, then form a committee to help decide whether another change is needed in 2016-17.

"It's not a closed matter," said Judith Brooks-Buck, a School Board member.

Wolfe hopes not.

"I certainly understand budget issues," she said. But, "it's simply a bad plan." 

©2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.