South Whidbey bus ridership count down this year

"Rachelle Rorex, Tacie Reading, and Stephanie Elf walk to the bus after school for a ride home. Fewer students are riding buses this year than last.Matt Johnson / staff photoEvery morning at South Whidbey High School, Intermediate school, Primary school and Langley Middle School, the parking lots are full of cars. The cars are driven by parents dropping off children, or by high school students who will park at school during the day.With so many cars carrying so many students, there are fewer and fewer school buses pulling into the school lots in the early mornings and mid-afternoons. Last week, the South Whidbey School District completed its annual Counts Week, during which bus drivers count the number of children riding their buses over the course of five school years. The news from the buses, said bus garage supervisor Margaret Evans, is not good. On a daily basis, 1,387 children ride in school buses, down 128 from last year. They're considerably down, Evans said. District-wide enrollment figures from Oct. 1 show 2,343 students attending South Whidbey schools. That means almost 1,000 students are getting to school by some way other than riding the bus. Having that many students driving, being driven, or using other methods to get to school hurts the district's general fund. The state funds the school buses by paying a certain amount of money per student mile traveled aboard the buses. That rate is calculated on a direct route to school, said Rex Miller, the district's budget director.If all the students in the district rode the bus to school, the buses would break even or even make a little money for the school district, Margaret Evans said. But as it is now, the bus program loses money and has to make up the difference in its income and operating expenses by taking from the district's general fund.This year's drop in ridership will drop the bus income even lower.It'll be a sharp decrease from the state, Evans said.Evans said the reason for the ridership decrease is clear. More and more parents are driving their children to school. Tim Gordon, assistant principal at Langley Middle School, said the parking lot in front of his school is packed with cars every morning as parents drop their kids at school. In fact, the traffic situation has become somewhat hazardous, between the heavy traffic levels on constricted Camano Avenue and in the narrow school lot.The parking lot is at times dangerous, Gordon said.The situation is safer at the other schools in the district because they have larger parking lots and better egress to Maxwelton Road. Doug Hale, interim principal of the South Whidbey Intermediate School, said the school is fortunate to have a safe environment for the students in spite of all the cars.We have a fairly extensive drop off and pick up, Hale said.Down the road, hundreds of cars stream in and out of the high school parking lot as well, driven primarily by students. The school's principal, Mike Johnson, said a higher percentage of the school's 606 students drive to school at South Whidbey than at other high schools he is familiar with.Evans said there is little the district can do to promote the bus as a way to school.We can only be informative, she said. I encourage year-round bus transportation for children. Evans noted that this week was School Bus Safety Week. Although the buses are driving a bit emptier than they did last year, they are driving safely. According to the governor's office, 8,766 buses transport children to school every day, and together those buses have the best safety record of any mode of transportation in the state. "

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