Schools eye plan to ease bus congestion

By Stacy Kess

February 4, 2014

The quagmire of buses outside Willis Intermediate School and Dempsey Middle School each morning and afternoon may be eased if the Delaware City Schools Board of Education accepts a proposal to change the start times at the district’s elementary and middle schools.

Jason Sherman, Delaware City Schools Director of Facilities and Transportation, presented the board with a preliminary plan to change the busing system from a “two-tiered” system to a “three-tiered” system.

In the current system, tier one involves 32 buses that transport students to and from Hayes High School and Dempsey Middle School. Tier two uses 30 buses to get students to and from the elementary schools and Willis Intermediate School.

The results are bus transfers for students to keep transportation on schedule, two waves of dismissal for some schools and traffic congestion at Willis and Dempsey where students make transfers.

It’s not just a matter of current problems, said superintendent Paul Craft. When construction begins at Dempsey, there won’t be enough room for the bus line-up that currently fills the parking lot. The current system then becomes obsolete at Willis after construction is finished on the elementary schools and fifth and sixth grade students are moved back into the elementary schools.

Sherman’s proposal for a “three-tiered” system rearranges the school start times for Dempsey. The middle school’s day currently starts at 7:35 a.m., 10 minutes after Hayes. Under the proposal, the students would start classes at Dempsey at 9:05 a.m.

While the school day at Hayes would remain unchanged from 7:25 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the elementary schools would move their start time from 8:45 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. and dismiss at 3:20 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. Willis would continue to start the day at 8:30 a.m., but would tack on an extra five minutes to the end of the day by dismissing at 3:20 p.m. instead of 3:15 p.m.

Sherman said the proposed schedule would be beneficial to traffic, especially in the area of Willis, where buses wreak havoc on traffic patterns in the morning and afternoon as students transfer buses and try to get to their destinations.

“I think we could certainly see some improvement in traffic,” he said. “There’s no data to back that up, but the keen observer can figure that out.”

The proposal would also put Willis students on the buses with the elementary students, and would require a fleet of 30 buses to complete the routes. Hayes and Dempsey students currently ride together, but would be separated into two routes under the proposal; each route would require 18 buses.

The proposal would also put an extra 18,000 miles on the buses annually.

“That’s kind of a soft number at this point, but there will be an increase in fuel costs,” Sherman said. The increase would be offset by a reduction in the overtime hours spent by bus drivers.

While board members expressed agreement that a new busing system is needed, board vice president Ted Backus said he is concerned about how the later day at Dempsey will affect after-school activities for the middle school students, including sports. Away games for the middle school start as early as 4 p.m.

“I don’t see how there will be any way to get those kids fed and get them where they need to be,” he said.

Board member Deb Rafeld said another issue concerns her.

“Transitioning into high school is hard,” she said. “Now we’re transitioning from a 9 o’clock start (at Dempsey) time to a 7:30 start time (at Hayes). … I think it will be hard on kids in their freshman year, which is hard anyway.”

Board president Frances O’Flaherty, a high school teacher, said the early start time is rough on high school students who have a physiological need to sleep later. She said students tend not to be fully awake during the first few classes.

“I have these kids in my first period,” she said. “You may as well not even have them there.”

Craft said the concerns are valid.

“Every time you move those (times) around, those issues come up,” Craft said.

He said factor such as sporting events will be taken into account, though athletic director Clint Fetty said if the students are dismissed later, the district can ask the league for a later start time for games.

Sherman said the proposal is not set in stone, and flipping the start times for the Willis and the elementary schools and Dempsey is still an option under the “three-tiered” system.

“This is a good place to start – massage it, tweak it from here,” he said. “It won’t work for everyone 100 percent of the time, but it will increase efficiency.”