Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

TOP STORY >> Long school-bus rides problems for students

BY SARA GREENE
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT >> Commutes taking an hour or more are often the norm for many Arkansas students.

Long rides on buses are inevitable for students who live in rural areas and there are no limits on the length of time children spend riding to and from school in Arkansas, but some parents and educators complain that overly long rides can affect academic performance.

“Parents complain every day about the length of the bus rides,” said Johnny White, transportation and athletic director for the Cabot School District. The Cabot School District has 85 bus routes for its 8,200 students.

“We cover 200 square miles in our district and we try to keep all the routes to about an hour,” White explained.

Superintendent Belinda Shook of the Beebe School Dis-trict told The Leader she felt the district was fortunate when it merged with the McRae School District last year because that district was just five miles away. After converting McRae’s campus into a middle school for fifth- and sixth-graders last summer, middle-school students now arrive at the Beebe campus and then board shuttle buses for a brief commute to the McRae campus, she said.

“I don’t think any of our bus routes are exceedingly long,” Shook said.

The district has a total of 31 bus routes for the district’s 2,900 students. The longest route is 36 miles one way.

According to Betty Stringfel-low, director of transportation for Pulaski County Special School District, the longest ride of any of the 273 routes in the 729-square-mile area is an hour and 28 minutes. There are more than 17,000 students enrolled in PCSSD.

“Our longest bus routes are to the magnet or TAG (Talented and Gifted) schools and parents don’t complain because they know those bus rides are going to be a little longer than normal,” Stringfellow said.

In the Lonoke School District, there are 18 bus routes for 1,838 students. The longest commute is an hour and half, about the same length Paron High School students in Saline County face next fall.

Paron School District was annexed into the Bryant School District in 2004. Last month, the Bryant School Board voted to close Paron High School because of financial concerns.

Parents of Paron High School students are asking a judge to bar closing the school claiming excessive time on a bus would violate some students’ right to equal educational opportunities under the state constitution.

The lawsuit against the state board of education claims long bus rides hurt academic performance.

Doug Eaton, director of public school facilities and transportation for Arkansas, said relocation is one option for rural residents concerned about lengthy bus rides.

“If they don’t like to ride the bus, move closer to the school,” Eaton said.

“I think anybody would be extremely, extremely hard pressed to be able to draw a parallel between a child’s inability to read and write and how long they’ve sat on a bus,” Eaton said.

A state department of education study on isolated schools is expected to be finished in 2007. The study was mandated by the Legislature last year.

“A statement like (Eaton’s) is similar to saying if kids in poor Delta school districts don’t like the education they’re getting, they ought to move to Little Rock,” said Chris Heller, attorney for the Paron patrons.

Eaton’s boss, Education Com-missioner Ken James, said the issue does not have such an easy solution.

“There are always going to be issues with respect to transportation,” James said.

“People don’t live in a magic box and they never will.”

The director of the National Association for Pupil Transporta-tion (NAPT) said bus ride limits are almost exclusively a local issue.

“Sort of the industry rule of thumb is you try to limit bus rides to an hour, maximum,” NAPT director Michael Martin said.

“But by the same token, in states where there are tremendously rural districts, often those times can be much longer than that.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson has said he would seek “reasonable standards” for school bus rides as governor. Hutchinson’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Beebe, said the isolated-schools study should offer guidelines for transportation times.

Rod McKnight of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services cited numerous studies that suggest a correlation between long bus rides and student achievement, though he said even those conclusions have conditions.

“It’s quick to come back and say, yeah, you may lose some educational time, but the consensus was there’s not a lot people could do about it,” McKnight said.

West Virginia asks school districts to limit bus rides for elementary students to 30 minutes and high schoolers to one hour, but an official there said the regulation is rarely enforced.

Kansas encourages districts to limit bus rides to less than an hour. Until 1993, South Carolina required rides of no longer than one hour and 15 minutes.

The regulation was removed when officials attempted to make it part of state law, said South Carolina Director of Transportation Donald Tudor. No statute was implemented, he said.

“We know our (rule) is not going to happen from time to time,” said Debbie Romine, a transportation safety consultant in Kansas.

“We have lots of gravel. Arkansas probably does, too, and Arkansas probably has a lot more windy roads than we do.”
States surrounding Arkansas do not limit the length of school bus rides. Texas and Okla-homa officials said several bus routes in those states are longer than 90 minutes.

Even in the nation’s most isolated state, Alaska, there are no restrictions on bus trip lengths.

“We leave it to the local school board to determine length of ridership,” said Alaska Department of Education spokesman Eddy Jean.

Plaintiffs in the Paron suit contend the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has already set a standard for bus rides of not more than 45 minutes one way.

Eaton, a former Little Rock School District official, said the federal case was related to desegregation efforts in Little Rock and should have no bearing on the Paron case.

Aaron Sadler of the Arkansas News Bureau contributed to this story.