12 Nov

Clients in the News... Lansing SD, NY

Lansing New York School Bus Runs Leaner, More Efficient

From The Lansing Star

by Dan Veaner

Lansing, NY

Friday, October 22, 2010


Among severe cuts necessitated by shrinking state aid and local revenue in the last budget cycle the Lansing Board of Education asked its Transportation Department to cut $90,000.  That meant cutting bus runs, which alarmed parents.  Over the summer school officials combined technology with the on-the-ground experience of their drivers to revamp the bus schedule by making it more efficient.  The result is twofold: not only are Lansing school buses more predictable in terms of when they will pick up and drop off kids, but the $90,000 goal was exceeded.

"The charge we received from you was related to the budget," School Business Administrator Mary June King told the Board Of Education earlier this month.  "We were charged to try to find a way to reduce the transportation budget by $90,000.  We are anticipating doing that by eliminating the 3pm trips for the high school and middle school, eliminating the 5pm trips for the high school and middle school four days a week, and eliminating four of the regular runs during the morning and afternoon bell sessions."

Lansing school buses transport 1,222 students over a total of 318,000 miles per school year.  The Transportation Department is responsible for transporting Lansing students to private schools, BOCES, the charter school, special education, athletic events, as well as teacher conferences, mail runs, and regular bus runs for the three Lansing schools.  Much of this activity is dictated by education law and school procedures.  The challenge was to maintain compliance while fulfilling the Transportation Department's mandate in an efficient, and, above all, safe manner for $90,000 less.

Getting to that point may have seemed hopeless at first.  Software incompatibilities, learning a new software package, and data entry procedure glitches produced unexpected results in a software package that is designed to efficiently route buses.  Exacerbating the problem was unexpected turnover in the Transportation office.  The Transportation aide retired, and then her replacement also left at the end of last school year.  On top of that the Transportation supervisor had to take a medical leave, and has since put in for retirement.

"His absence this summer was critical," King says.  "He was the person who was working to implement this program.  With the absence of his immediate aide we were hitting a big brick wall.  It took some weeks to replace him, and the people replacing him were not up to speed with this software.  That's when I tapped Melissa Ferris."

Ferris is the District Business Office Purchasing Clerk.  King says that she has a great understanding of both the software and business office operations, so she was a perfect fit to be assigned to work full time on getting the software up and running over the summer, and putting a transportation plan in place.  Mechanic/Bus Driver Gary Christopher also stepped up to help match the on-the-ground bus operations with the software analysis to make the new plan practical and workable.

Helping the process was a plethora of historical data that was preserved in spreadsheets.  That put Ferris at an advantage, providing real information about how actual bus runs work.  She reviewed state regulations, state education law, and regulations on how long a bus ride can be in time and distance.

They reviewed every aspect of existing route and consulted with the bus drivers.  Christopher and Ferris drove potential new routes, even taking a bus to test out possible trouble spots.  The worked out contingency plans for every situation. For instance if a two o'clock bus didn't get back on schedule, how would that impact the three o'clock run and how would those students get home?

"He knows all the routes in this district," Ferris says.  "He knows all the kids. On one occasion when we didn't get the data from the Student Information System (SIS) software he insisted, 'I know a kid lives there.'  He was right.  The child happened to be geo-coded out near Treman park instead of Van Ostrand Road in Lansing."

That particular error was only one example of how important data entry procedures are.  It turned out that there was an incompatibility with the Student Information System (SIS) that the Transfinder system is dependent upon for the names, addresses, and student demographic information.  Part of the problem was finding ways that both systems could understand addresses.  'Van Ostrand Road' had been entered differently in SIS than in Transfinder.  The systems were confused by the difference between Van Ostrand and Van Ostrand.  Each night when Transfinder imported the SIS data students on that road were re-routed to Van Ostrand Road near Treman Park across the county instead of Van Ostrand Road in Lansing.

The software that the district has implemented not only plans routes, comparing existing routes with the shortest and fastest, but has the capability to use GPS technology to track actual routes, stops, and geography in real time in the Transportation Office.  It has the capability of showing the route in a three dimensional rendering, and match it with student information including pictures of students and their addresses and bus stops.  It can adjust for changes including new students, changes in the geography of the district, and even road work.

It takes into consideration students who do not ride the bus to maximize bus loads and routes.  It can also predict with much greater accuracy what time the bus will arrive.  At the beginning of this school year the system generated letters outlining accurate information about their children's bus schedules and mailing labels that enabled the Transportation Office to send letters to parents at the beginning of the school year so they would know what to expect, and exactly when to expect the bus to arrive at the beginning and end of each day.  This kind of automation cuts down on labor needed to handle phone calls to parents.  Eventually the district may elect to put real time bus information on the Internet, reducing phone tasks even more.

Ferris started by attending a Transfinder training session in Saratoga Springs.  That got her up to speed on the software quickly, and provided her a chance to network with other district transportation officials in order to bypass some of the challenges they had navigated.  She also partook of online training sessions to master the software.  She researched transportation safety, efficiency and effectiveness issues that would impact decisions on routing the buses.

She matched the new routes with district policiesto make sure the cuts were in line of existing regulations.  Drivers knew route changes were coming, and were permitted to bid on the new routes they wanted based on seniority.

"These guys were gracious and accepting in a time of cuts," she says.  "These people are an asset to the district.  As they are out there driving their one-room schools, they are really incredible."

Ferris estimates the district will save $20,000 by eliminating the 5pm bus runs, based on mileage, parts, and driver salaries. Four regular trips were eliminated by matching actual ridership with more efficient routes for a further savings of $35,000. Shuttles to private schools and the charter school were combined at a savings of $11,500.  Eliminating mid-day trips from BOCES to Lansing would save $9,900.  Two van trips that were no longer needed for special education saved $17,000.  A trip returning from vocational BOCES classes was combined with a 3pm bus, and a mail run was consolidated with an existing BOCES run.

Ferris says that altogether she predicts the district will realize a cut of $107,000 this school year, $17,000 more than the Board of Education asked for.  She has also suggested other possibilities that could save more, such as reducing the fleet when possible, computerizing bus garage inventory, and creating new policies for ride times and walking to school.  She says a new version of Transfinder will allow athletic bus trips to be tracked and planned, and will allow school officials and teachers to have access to vital transportation information in real time over the Internet.  That could potentially save the district even more in transportation costs.

Change is always difficult, and cuts even more so.  Some parents and school board members have expressed concerns about the impact of some of the cuts on extra-curricular activities and on bus drivers' ability to maintain order on their buses. Ferris and King say that these issues will be monitored and the system will be tweaked based on the data that continues to come infrom bus drivers' daily reports.  The transportation plan is a work in progress, but with major changes in place district officials are confident that Lansing children are in safe hands and will get to school and back home more efficiently.