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Riders equal dollars

Fourth-grader Katelyn Mikolasy of Langley is a regular school bus rider. More K-5 students in the South Whidbey School District ride the bus than students in grades 6-12. - Gayle Saran
Fourth-grader Katelyn Mikolasy of Langley is a regular school bus rider. More K-5 students in the South Whidbey School District ride the bus than students in grades 6-12.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

There will be a lot of money riding on who is riding on school buses next week.

Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 4, each South Whidbey student who rides a bus to school will represent more dollars for the South Whidbey School District. During those days, which are designated as Bus Ridership Week, a head count of students who ride the school bus will determine the amount of state money that goes to the district's transportation budget next year.

The annual count of bus ridership is more important than ever this year, according to district officials. A shortfall in funding could mean less money for school supplies, activities and teachers' salaries if the district has to pay for transportation out of its own pocket.

"We could fund the transportation department's operating budget 100 percent with better bus ridership," said Margaret Evans, supervisor of the district's transportation department.

Evans was doing her annual ridership pitch this week in hopes of getting a few more kids to ride the bus for even a few days. The operating budget for school district buses this year is $831,000, a figure Evans said could be much higher with more kids riding.

That money supports a transportation system with 24 routes and 12 buses. In addition, the district runs six special shuttle routes; four mid-day kindergarten, two mid-day special education runs; and transports Langley Christian School students on a space-available basis.

In previous years, state money funded about 71 percent of the transportation department's operating budget, including wages. The remaining 29 percent came out of the district's general fund, which is used to pay for just about everything else the schools do.

Evans said students can choose where general fund money goes next week by voting with their ridership.

"We would like to see every student on the buses next week and all year for that matter," Evans said. "That would be the best."

Knowing she will not get every student who can ride the bus aboard during the ridership count week, Evans' goal is to have at least 1,400 students riding. Last year's ridership count was 1,319 students.

"We are looking for a modest gain; any gain is good," she said.

Bus not best for everyone

Unfortunately for the district, funding woes are not enough reason for some parents to put their kids on the bus. Common complaints from parents who drive their children to school include the length of time kids spend on the bus and how early they have wake up to catch it. This is especially true for students who live a long distance from school.

Larry Hardie drives son, Mark, to Langley Middle School every day because the bus arrives at their home too early.

"He would have to get up so early, 5:30 a.m. or earlier to catch the bus and then spend an hour getting to school," he said.

Other children live too close to school to make a half hour or so on the bus worth the free ride. Pauline Cruchon said her high schooler drives herself to school on some days or gets a ride with her.

"We live so close to school it takes only 5 minutes," Cruchon said. "But if she rides the bus, it's a long side trip out of her way."

Because of the rural nature of the district, the amount of time students spend on the bus may seem uncomfortable to some. Evans said ride times are significant on many bus runs.

"The average length of time a student in our district travels on the bus is about 45 minutes, some routes less and some a little longer," she said.

But there are also parents who understand the need to increase bus ridership next week. Greg and Cathy Hein are probably more aware of bus funding issues than almost any parents in the district.

"My wife and I were bus drivers, so we know how important this funding is to the district," Greg Hein said.

District bus driver Bonnie Nixon also said she will send her two children to school on the bus next week, but not just because of the school's money crunch. For her, her children's safety is a bigger issue. She noted that the National Transportation Safety Commission reports are fewer than 10 student fatalities nationwide per year related to school bus accidents.

"It's more than money, it's safety as well," she said.

Everyone means everyone

Even students who use school buses only for special trips can be part of the count next week. Evans said athletes who ride the bus to games or students who take field trips should hop aboard during the week, even if they do not ride regularly in the mornings.

"We transport children to other activities in the afternoon who might not necessarily ride in the morning," she said.

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