Edmund Dixon, left, a development manager for First Student Consulting, and David Staples, a transportation operations consultant, at Monday’s Board of Education meeting discussed a new study of Westport’s school transportation problems. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The school district may have to revisit school start times if buses are to run on time.

That was one of several suggestions made in a comprehensive report delivered Monday to the Board of Education by First Student Consulting, a firm hired to assess efficiencies and overall performance of the district’s problematic transportation system.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said that while no time changes are being considered imminently, the report’s recommendations give staff and the school board a lot to consider as they try to solve continuing transportation woes and prepare to put a new bus contract out to bid this winter.

“This [bell time] recommendation was provided in order to lengthen the time between tiers so that reliability of pickup/drop off times can be secured,” Scarice told the board. “Additionally, the extra minutes in this recommendation would be reallocated to ensure all elementary students depart campus no later than 4 p.m.”

The goal, he added, is reliability. He called the report a good first step to coming as close as the district can to perfecting transportation.

The district has suffered busing woes throughout the pandemic, exacerbated by a shortage of bus drivers, which forced some routes to be consolidated and bus company mechanics being called in as substitute drivers.

In September, school officials heard a fresh round of complaints about problems this academic year.

At the start of this school year, several buses were arriving at schools past 9 a.m. and showing up late to pick up students at the end of the school day. Some are still late.

The First Student study looked at everything from district policies and procedures to vendor performance, software utilization, bus stops and ridership.

 A cost comparison was done with other similar-sized school districts around the state and an evaluation of the district’s ability to meet current and future student transportation needs.

Edmund Dixon, a development manager for First, along with David Staples, a transportation operations consultant, and Colton Graham, described as a routing guru for the firm, walked the school board through a 98-page report.

Report: More bus routes or change schedules?

The report cited the good along with the bad.

It said the district’s safety standards and bus fleet are in compliance. It found the district transportation office is responsive to families, but recommended there be better communication between the office and bus company.

The board view, Dixon added, concludes the best way to increase routing efficiencies is to increase the time between bus runs from 30 to 45 minutes, particularly between the elementary and middle schools.

The schedule offers only 23 minutes of route time between some tiers in the after-school runs.

The district has 51 routes and most buses make three runs each morning and afternoon, servicing elementary, middle and high schools.

“The answer to solving this thing is really two things,” said Graham. “You can add more routes … or you can adjust your schedule to create additional room, which is my recommendation.”

By increasing the time between the second and third tier of bus runs through a modest schedule change, Dixon said, on-time service would improve.

The district’s bell times were last changed in the 2020-21 school year when all schools began 30 minutes later.

Graham suggested several options for changing school day starting times.

One would start Staples High School 15 minutes earlier, the middle schools and Saugatuck Elementary School 10 minutes earlier and the remaining elementary schools five minutes later. That would increase the gap between tiers by 15 minutes.

A second idea would be to re-align the start times so that middle schools and Saugatuck start first, at 7:45 a.m., followed by Staples at 8:25 a.m., and the remaining elementary schools at 9:05 a.m.

A third option would have Staples start last.

Of the three, Graham said he liked the high school in the middle option best as it frees up some buses at the end of the day for after-school activities.

Scarice cautioned that the ideas were being suggested purely from an operational perspective.

“This is sanitized from whether we should start at this time as a community,” Scarice said.

He said he is not opposed to changes, but not without full consideration of all the other variables and unintended consequences.

Other recommendations in the report include:

• Exploring routes where ridership is low. The district provides routes for about 2,500 students who don’t ride the buses, the consultants said.

• Looking at establishing safe walking areas where appropriate.

• Increasing the transportation department staff by one to divide responsibilities.

• Implement a cloud-based, routing software solution.

• Implement supplier management metrics and standardized reporting.

Costs higher in Westport

Dixon said Westport transportation costs are somewhat higher than comparable districts. 

With 5,300 students, Westport spends $7.1 million a year on transportation. Milford also has 5,300 students and spends $5.7 million, according to the study.

Board Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer said while there may have been an initial hesitation about conducting another transportation study for fear it wouldn’t come up with anything new, she is now glad it was done.

“I feel like there is opportunity here,” Heyer said. “I do feel like there is a lot here to at least explore to the next level.”

Public: Study is overdue

When the public got a chance to speak, Tami Benanav, a parent, said she appreciated the study because for years people have just said add more buses.

“Looking at this from an efficiency standpoint is greatly appreciated,” Benanav said. She said she is also grateful options other than just pushing the high school start time back to 7:45 a.m. were suggested.

Joe Nader, another parent, called the report long overdue.

“It should have been done when they were doing the school start time committee,” Nader said.

Scarice said the study would inform the district’s “request for proposals” for a new bus contract.

“We definitely have some considerations for the budget,” he added. “And some operational implications … This won’t he the last time this comes to the board.”

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.