MIFFLINTOWN - Juniata County School District Superintendent Richard Musselman says changing the district's busing system was necessary, and that buses will continue to be full - but not overcrowded.
Transportation in the district was off to a rough start a week ago as buses were packed with students, late for pick-ups and drop-offs and winding through longer routes. A week later the complaints, though fewer, still exist and many are blaming the district's move to outsource its busing to Rohrer Bus in Perry County.
David Schrantz, vice-president of Rohrer, commented late last week that phone calls were down to 10 a day. He also said the company "wants the community to know we are a family-owned business and we understand the way of life around here. We appreciate everybody's patience. We know parents are very concerned and so are we."
Musselman still stands behind the board's decision to go with the busing company. And, despite some of the complaints coming from local bus drivers, he said the drivers concurred with the decision in the early days of the agreement.
He said of the initial school board meeting earlier this year, "At the end of the meeting one of the school board directors asked the contractors if they felt this was something they could support and an overwhelming majority of the Juniata County bus contractors raised their hands in support."
But there has been a lack of support by some drivers, he said, which adds to the confusion for students.
Bus numbers and route numbers were different. Musselman said some bus contractors showed resistance to placing magnetic numbers on their buses so that the bus number was the same as the route number.
"Things would be much easier if everyone would work together," the superintendent said.
He also stated that bus rosters were not accurate. In some cases drivers were picking up students without telling the district he or she added the students to his or her roster.
"So at any given time, no one but that bus driver would know where that child really was," Musselman admitted.
Musselman also explained the financial changes for bus contractors under the new agreement.
"The terms of the contract are a five-year agreement for Rohrer Bus to manage transportation for the entire school district. The district pays the state formula for transportation to Rohrer Bus. They in turn subcontract to the local contractors and subtract 4 percent for the management fees," he said.
The superintendent also said that the transportation subsidy to this formula has risen every year, and contractors have been getting raises each year.
"Since 2011 contractors have seen a 4.5 percent increase. This year with the changes, many of the contractors are making more in profit per bus than in the past. More students and miles mean more profit per bus. For the district, the changes mean we have a transportation budget decreased to $2.5 million."
Outsourcing has worked in other areas of the district, Musselman said, and transportation is intended to be as successful.
He pointed out that cafeteria and technology outsourcing has not only saved the district money but has proven to be more efficient.
Plus, he said, many in the district commented in recent years that the district could save money if there were not so few children on too many buses.
"We were spending over $3.2 million a year to transport students. That amount is 10 percent of our total operational budget," he said.
Musselman said he and others from the district office began riding the school buses last school year and driving the routes to get an idea of how well the old system was working. He said it was clear the routes were not running efficiently, and safety was a concern.
"One of the complaints has been safety factors. Any safety issue takes top priority. Are our buses safer than last year? Yes," he said. "All drivers have updated clearances as required by the state. Drivers have undergone all of the required training. No buses older than 15 years are running routes compared to the 20-year-old buses our students previously rode. Safety lights and procedures are being enforced."
He said the issue of overcrowding continues to be a complaint by parents as children now sit three to a seat. In a previous Sentinel article both Musselman and P.J. Adam, the district transportation director, noted none of the district buses were overcrowded and state law allows three to a seat.
"Some are crowded but our drivers know they cannot pick up more than the maximum allowed number of students. When routes are optimized, that means more students on a bus and that means the bus will need to travel longer to fill the bus and drop off," he said. An additional bus route was created and bus shifts were made by Rohrer Bus to address the overcrowding, he added.
Schrantz said buses may appear "full" but no bus is filled with 72 students.
"Buses with 50 to 60 kids will seem full," the vice president noted, which will be the norm for the year.
The buses, Musselman said, "will still be fuller than in previous years."
Musselman said there will be no transportation motions on the Sept. 19 school board meeting agenda.