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School closings, lax oversight lead to record long bus rides

 

School administrators across West Virginia have repeatedly ignored transportation laws and guidelines, forcing thousands of children to spend two hours or more on school buses each day and leaving them more likely to get sick, less likely to learn, a Gazette-Mail investigation has found.

 

 

The number of children who ride buses more than two hours a day doubled during the 1990s, even though 25,000 fewer children ride buses, records show.

 

 

In Pocahontas County, elementary school children count bolts on the roof of Bus No. 21 to amuse themselves during their hour and 40-minute ride.

 

 

In Webster County, teachers slip cups of coffee to red-eyed students to help them stay awake.

 

 

In Ritchie County, an 8-year-old boy worries that he?ll fall asleep on the bus and no one will wake him. His ride time quadruples this fall because his local elementary school in Cairo was shut down.

 

 

When schools open across the state Monday, more than half of all bus routes in rural West Virginia will exceed what the state calls ?reasonable? under its guidelines, according to a Gazette-Mail analysis of 1,500 bus runs in 35 rural counties.

 

 

The bus times will get only longer with 153 schools expected to close within the next eight years.

 

 

?They?re turning these children into little commuters,? said Ed Haver, who serves on the West Virginia Coalition for Physical Activity and directs the cardiac rehabilitation program at Charleston Area Medical Center. ?It?s sad for kids so young to be caught up in that.?

 

 

The newspaper?s investigation found soaring transportation costs, longer bus rides for the state?s youngest children and school officials who refuse to monitor the problem:

 

 

More than two-thirds of elementary bus runs, almost 60 percent of middle school routes and a third of high school runs in rural counties exceed state guidelines ? less than 30 minutes each way for elementary students, 45 minutes for middle school children, and an hour for high school students.

 

 

Statewide, at least 20,000 elementary students, 11,000 middle school students and 5,000 high school students endure rides over the state guidelines, according to a survey of transportation directors obtained by the Gazette-Mail.

 

 

The longest one-way bus ride in West Virginia: exactly two hours for a high school student in Monroe County.

 

 

State and county school administrators ignored a 1998 law that required them to study the amount of time students spend on buses. They ignored a consultant?s recommendation to monitor student bus times every year. They also failed to comply with laws that require them to determine projected bus times when schools consolidate.

 

 

West Virginia spends more of its education dollars on transportation than any other state, draining money from teachers and classrooms. The long rides prompt counties to hire more bus drivers and slash the jobs of classroom aides, secretaries, custodians and cooks. Transportation costs on a per-pupil basis have doubled in the last decade for 11 counties.

 

 

Students with long rides say they are stressed and exhausted. Their grades slump. They participate in fewer after-school activities. They have less time to spend with their parents.

 

 

Long bus rides also are bad for children?s health, recent studies have shown. Students who spend hours in the morning and afternoon slumped in bus seats are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses. The diesel exhaust they inhale sticks in their young, developing lungs.

 

 

Thousands of West Virginia children spend more time riding to school than adults driving to work. The average American has a 26-minute commute. Los Angeles residents spend 28 minutes commuting to work.

 

 

?No adult would want to commute that far for 12 years, especially on winding, bad roads,? said Belle Zars, an independent researcher who completed a national busing study in 1998. ?It?s one thing if you?re in a Lexus, quite another thing if you?re climbing into a hot, stinking bus.?

 

 

Presented with the Gazette-Mail findings, state schools Transportation Director Wayne Clutter said he will establish a computerized reporting system to track bus routes and times statewide.

 

 

?I promise you that?s going to be worked on,? Clutter said. ?We?re going to get some technology in the transportation department. We?re going to work on this for every bus run in the state. We need to get accurate and timely data.?

 

 

Clutter also announced plans to survey counties this fall to determine how many students ride buses longer than guidelines recommend. Transportation directors haven?t reported bus times to the Department of Education since 1996. More than 70 schools have closed since then.

 

 

?I want to see where we are now. Absolutely. We need that data in here,? Clutter said.

 

 

Fewer schools, rough terrain

 

 

West Virginia school buses rumble up 4,000-foot mountains in Pocahontas County. They skirt under hanging rock formations in Webster County. They cross covered bridges in Barbour County.

 

 

They shuttle 220,000 kids over 42,600 miles of blacktop, gravel, ?tar and chip,? and dirt roads each year.

 

 

Indeed, the buses traverse some of the toughest terrain in the nation.

 

 

And for years, former state schools Superintendent Hank Marockie and state Department of Education officials blamed long bus rides on West Virginia?s topography.

 

 

?School consolidation is not the primary cause of the majority of the longer transportation times,? former Transportation Director Cecil Dolan wrote in a 1992 memo to Marockie.

 

 

?These routes have existed for years and will likely continue to exist due to West Virginia?s topography and highway network. These are the controlling factors in long transportation times for a small percentage of students, not school consolidation.?

 

 

The mountains and hollows haven?t changed over the past decade. The roads have gotten better. There are fewer students to bus.

 

 

Yet between 1992 and 1996, the number of students with hour- long rides increased from 3,908 to 7,938, according to two surveys of county transportation directors.

 

 

In 1992, 13 counties had more than 100 students riding school buses for more than an hour each way. Four years later, 21 counties fell into that category.

 

 

Why the increase?

 

 

?I have no explanation for that,? said Clutter, after examining the data presented by the Gazette-Mail. ?Is it consolidation? Yes, consolidation is a factor. I?ll say that.?

 

 

County school boards, with the state Board of Education?s approval, closed more than 300 schools since 1990 ? one of every five West Virginia schools.

 

 

They plan to shut down another 153 schools by 2010, most of them elementary schools.

 

 

State School Building Authority Executive Director Clacy Williams, perhaps the state?s most vocal consolidation proponent, acknowledged that consolidation has played a role in bus time hikes.

 

 

?Generally, kids are spending a little more time on buses,? said Williams, whose agency often gets blamed for spurring consolidation. ?But you don?t have to be in a rural area for that to be a reality.?

 

 

Stormy?s ride

 

 

Eight-year-old Mason ?Stormy? Platt will experience the sting of consolidation this fall.

 

 

The Ritchie County Board of Education closed his school, Cairo Elementary, in June. He?s been assigned to Harrisville Elementary, 18 miles away.

 

 

Platt?s bus ride will jump from a 13-minute jaunt down the road to a 66-minute endurance ride, Ritchie County records show.

 

 

He remains uneasy about attending the new school.

 

 

?What worries Stormy, he?s afraid he?ll fall asleep on the bus and they will forget him,? said Sue Cain, the boy?s grandmother. ?He keeps asking, ?Grandma, what if I fall asleep???

 

 

Elementary students are supposed to spend less time on the bus than older students.

 

 

In a 1990 resolution, the state Board of Education declared that it would consider ?more favorably? school closing proposals that result in longer bus rides for middle school and high school students.

 

 

?However,? the resolution states, ?[the board] will review very carefully proposals which involve additional transportation time for younger students, that is, early childhood, primary or elementary age, in order to determine the potential impact on students and whether consolidation is reasonable and practical.?

 

 

But today, buses hauling elementary children are on the road almost as long as those carrying high school students, according to the Gazette- Mail analysis.

 

 

The average elementary run is 41 minutes; the average high school route, 54 minutes.

 

 

Elementary children ride the bus more than an hour each way on more than 300 bus routes in 34 of the state?s 35 most rural counties.

 

 

The elementary times are longest in counties, such as Ritchie, with only one high school, the bus route analysis shows.

 

 

Nine of the 10 counties with the longest bus runs for elementary children have just one high school. In the 10 counties with the shortest elementary runs, only two are one-high-school counties.

 

 

In a county with just one high school, buses that used to carry elementary students must be devoted to older students. Bus times increase for everyone.

 

 

Now that Cairo Elementary has closed, bus times are expected to increase for 56 of Cairo?s 70 students, from an average of 22 minutes to 38 minutes each way.

 

 

?Those preschoolers are going to be peeing on the bus,? said Cain, rubbing her grandson?s close-cropped blond hair. ?Somebody?s going to have a messy bus to clean up.?

 

 

As of last week, Cairo parents still hadn?t received a bus schedule for the upcoming school year.

 

 

?They didn?t give us time to prepare,? Cain said. ?Everything was kept secret. If they can mess up somebody?s life, they?ll mess it up.?

 

 

Coffee cups and sleeping pills

 

 

This was the promise: Let us close your high school, and we?ll furnish you with a tour bus, a Greyhound-type motor coach, complete with reclining seats, headrests and a bathroom. Yes, the ride will be long, but your children can travel in comfort and style.

 

 

That was 30 years ago.

 

 

Hacker Valley parents and students are still waiting for that motor coach.

 

 

?Instead, we got a regular old school bus,? said Janet Cogar, whose 16-year-old son attends Webster County High. ?They made promises they couldn?t keep.?

 

 

Today, more than half of Webster County?s high school bus runs exceed state guidelines.

 

 

Monica Shaffer, 15, who lives in Replete, rides an hour and 10 minutes to school.

 

 

She admits she?s often ?cranky.? She?s learned to sleep in short bursts but has trouble sleeping through the night.

 

 

She blames the long bus ride. Her doctor prescribed sleeping pills.

 

 

?They had to get me those pills,? Shaffer said while eating lunch recently with friends at Kathy?s Restaurant in Hacker Valley. ?I get so stressed out.?

 

 

Mary Anderson, a 17-year-old senior at Webster County High, said her grades dropped from As and Bs at Hacker Valley School to Bs and Cs at the high school.

 

 

The girls struggle to stay awake during the last class period. They drink Coke and Mountain Dew. Sometimes teachers will prepare them a cup of coffee to help them stay alert.

 

 

?We usually drink so much caffeine, we don?t sleep in the evening,? Anderson said.

 

 

For Webster County kids, the rides are rough. Kids are shaken and bumped on the rides. There are mountains to cross on the way to school.

 

 

?You slam into each other,? Anderson said. ?You butt your head into the window or fall into the aisle. There?s no room for our legs. Sometimes I wake up and Monica?s head is on my shoulder.?

 

 

The new bus driver refuses to pull over when someone gets sick, the girls said.

 

 

?Our old bus driver would just take a hose and spray it out of the bus,? Anderson said. ?Our new driver makes such a deal.?

 

 

Hacker Valley parents attend few Parent-Teacher Organization meetings at Webster County High School. They?re lucky to stop at the school more than three times a year.

 

 

At the elementary school, parents volunteer every day. Hacker Valley was one of about 35 elementary schools that received the state?s exemplary rating last year.

 

 

?Hacker Valley parents can?t afford to drive to the high school,? Cogar said.

 

 

The Hacker Valley and Replete students attend few school dances, football and basketball games.

 

 

Lorena Quinn plays on the junior varsity basketball team. Anderson and Shaffer help Quinn with her homework on the bus while she sleeps.

 

 

?She?s really been whupped a couple of times,? Shaffer said. ?If we don?t help her, she won?t get it done.?

 

 

Shaffer?s mother, Gloria, just wants to see her daughter more often during the school year: ?She gets home, feeds the dogs, eats supper, goes to bed.?

 

 

?I?ve got three more years to suffer,? Shaffer said.

 

 

?I have no explanation for that?

 

 

No one at the county, state or federal level keeps track of how long kids ride the bus.

 

 

State legislators have tried, unsuccessfully, to force the West Virginia Department of Education to find out.

 

 

In 1998, the Legislature passed a law that mandated a study of 10 school transportation issues, including ?amount of time students spend on buses.?

 

 

But the bus time stipulation was left out when the Department of Education requested bids from consultants for the study, according to bid documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail. The other nine items were listed.

 

 

?I have no explanation for that,? said Clutter, the state Department of Education?s transportation director. ?I can assure you it was not intentionally done.?

 

 

Clutter said employees in the transportation department prepared the bid request. He reviewed the document, as did the Department of Education?s lawyer, former Superintendent Marockie and current schools Superintendent David Stewart, who served as an assistant superintendent over Clutter at the time.

 

 

A Rockville, Md., consulting company looked at the original law and offered to examine bus times in its proposal, along with the other nine items. That consultant wasn?t selected. Evaluators said the company?s proposed study was too costly.

 

 

The state wound up paying MGT of America, a Florida company, $175,000 to complete the transportation study. The company delivered a 104-page report with 70 recommendations in Jan. 1999.

 

 

Recommendation No. 6.12: ?Direct county schools to collect and report student time on bus every year.?

 

 

?Student time on bus has been a continuing concern,? the report went on. ?But counties do not regularly collect and report this critical information on a systematic basis.?

 

 

The company?s team leader, Julio Massad, stood by the recommendation in a recent interview.

 

 

?You want students to be fresh,? said Massad, a former school principal who now works for a consulting firm in Austin, Texas. ?You don?t want them tired and hungry and not focused after a very long trip on the bus. It makes it hard for them to be ready to learn.?

 

 

Short rides don?t come cheap

 

 

You will find tough terrain ? mountains, hollows, ridges ? in rural Boone County. You won?t find long bus rides.

 

 

Not for elementary school students. Not for middle school students. Not for high school students.

 

 

?The biggest reason we have shorter times is the fact we haven?t consolidated schools,? said Steve Bradley, Boone transportation director.

 

 

Boone County has three high schools near the county?s three largest communities. The county also has 14 elementary schools.

 

 

?With three high schools, 30 minutes is a long way from school,? Bradley said.

 

 

Bus drivers pick up middle and high school students early in the morning, drop them off at school, then make a second run for elementary school children.

 

 

No high school students ride for more than an hour each way. No elementary children ride with middle and high school students.

 

 

The county hires six to eight contract drivers each year to haul students out of ?tough spots? ? mountainous areas that would increase times for students if they were picked up by 72-passenger buses.

 

 

The longest ride for children in Boone County is 55 minutes.

 

 

The short rides don?t come cheap. Boone County transportation costs on a per-pupil basis have doubled over the past decade.

 

 

Boone County taxpayers support a 100-percent excess levy that allows the county to hire more service workers, including bus drivers, than the state provides under its school funding formula.

 

 

?In Boone County, there could be more money saved if more drivers were cut,? said Joe Tagliente, a former middle school principal who served 11 years as Boone County transportation director before retiring in 2000. ?But they have the money to support them.?

 

 

Tagliente, who developed the county?s route system, takes pride in the short hauls.

 

 

?If Boone County started to consolidate, you?re going to get longer rides,? Tagliente said. ?If they keep the three high schools, then transportation times will never be long.?

 

 

Ignoring state law

 

 

Each time county school administrators attempt to close a school, they must analyze student bus times. State law requires it. The state Department of Education mandates it.

 

 

State school board members receive copies of documents and approve the county school boards? decisions to shut down schools based on that information.

 

 

But after reviewing a sampling of 47 school closing documents, the Gazette-Mail found that school officials failed to comply with the law in one-third of the consolidations:

 

 

Five times, counties stated that no elementary students would ride buses for more than ?35 to 45 minutes,? using a violation of state transportation guidelines to justify closing schools. The documents didn?t declare the number of students with longer rides.

 

 

Three counties provided the number of additional students who would ride buses and the expected increase in costs but no times.

 

 

In two school closure documents, Monongalia and Logan counties provided no transportation times whatsoever.

 

 

Clutter acknowledged that some counties submitted incomplete school closing documents.

 

 

?I?m surprised those got past the state board,? Clutter said.

 

 

He said the reviews became more thorough last year. The department?s attorney now examines the documents.

 

 

?The process evolved,? Clutter said. ?The earlier ones aren?t as good as the later ones in terms of the quality of the documents. A lot of it was a reaction to certain [court] cases.

 

 

?We have gotten more thorough with that. If they do not include the minutes, we [now] ask them to.?

 

 

Clutter also acknowledged that counties don?t examine the increase in bus times for elementary students when they close high schools.

 

 

?We never monitored that,? he said. ?We?re probably going to ask them that now.?

 

 

The Gazette-Mail attempted to review closure documents for the more than 300 schools closed since 1990, but the state Department of Education had retained only 47.

 

 

The department shredded the remaining documents, records show. Clutter said the agency routinely destroys records older than three years.

 

 

A stacked deck

 

 

When former Gov. Gaston Caperton and state legislators established the School Building Authority in 1989, they never decided that bigger schools were more important than keeping reasonable bus times for students.

 

 

But when evaluating project proposals, the SBA gives more weight to some factors, such as larger schools that meet ?economies of scale,? and less weight to others, such as those that prompt bus time increases.

 

 

The Legislature set seven goals for judging which projects would receive money: student health and safety, economies of scale, reasonable travel times, multicounty schools, curricular improvements, educational innovations and adequate space. Legislators never ranked the goals

 

 

But the SBA decided that safety, larger schools, curriculum and innovations were more important than bus times, classroom space and schools that accepted students from more than one county. The SBA also added an eighth ?overall rating? goal into the mix.

 

 

The decision contradicted a 1990 state Board of Education resolution about school consolidation. State board members listed ?avoids inappropriate increases in travel time? as the second priority when closing schools. They ranked ?improved educational programs? as most important.

 

 

A project review team, made up of a Department of Education administrator and eight educators from throughout the state, rates projects based on the criteria and submits a final score to SBA members.

 

 

The review process, small schools activists say, stacks the deck in favor of larger schools and longer bus rides.

 

 

SBA Executive Director Clacy Williams said the agency approved the weighted scale when money was limited and schools were in deplorable condition. He said children were in ?dangerous situations.?

 

 

?At the time the values were assigned, the most significant issue was to take care of health and safety problems and deliver a thorough and efficient education,? Williams said. ?[State law] doesn?t say a thorough and efficient education in your back yard.?

 

 

Last week, Williams said he would recommend ? possibly as early as September ? that the SBA remove the weighted scale from the evaluation process. Everything would receive equal consideration.

 

 

?It might be fun to take the argument away,? Williams said. ?We could eliminate the indexes on all of them. Our board may want to change that one of these days.?

 

 

But Williams predicted the change wouldn?t make a big difference, since SBA board members also consider Williams? final recommendation, inspection reports and statements from county school officials before distributing money for school projects.

 

 

To calculate a final score for projects, the SBA review team uses a form that gives higher scores to projects that force longer bus rides on children.

 

 

Presented with the form, Williams was at first confused by the scoring, but said review team members wouldn?t make the same mistake.

 

 

?No, we sit down with the team to explain this. I only do this once a year. We only use the form one day a year.?

 

 

The infinite ride

 

 

West Virginia?s bus time guidelines are meaningless if they aren?t enforced, school transportation experts say.

 

 

In other states, bus time limits are set in state law or policy, not mere recommendations. Tennessee, for instance, sets a 90-minute one- way limit on bus trips for all students.

 

 

?There has to be some standard, that at about this level we don?t want the kids on the bus,? said Massad, who delivered the report on West Virginia school transportation three years ago. ?You set standards, then you maintain and collect data on a periodic basis. It?s a way of gauging whether you?re on target with your policy.?

 

 

The West Virginia Office of Education Performance Audits, which monitors schools, has never cited a county school system for exceeding the state transportation guidelines.

 

 

The reason: The guidelines are just that, guidelines. There?s no law, policy, or standard about travel times in West Virginia.

 

 

?The times are too idealistic,? Clutter said. ?It gives people false hope.?

 

 

Rural school transportation directors want the guidelines scrapped.

 

 

?It?s not realistic in rural counties,? said Jerry Milliken, an assistant superintendent in Roane County, where 38 out of 42 elementary runs exceed guidelines. ?Even if they get in their private vehicle they can?t drive it in that.?

 

 

Small schools advocates want the guidelines set into law. They want them enforced. West Virginia last had maximum bus times set in policy in 1992.

 

 

If maximum bus times were enforced, several small rural schools now on the chopping block might be kept open.

 

 

?If schools keep closing, the rides are going to go up,? said Zars, the independent researcher who also worked four years as a West Virginia University Extension agent in Logan County.

 

 

?Long bus rides are a place of endurance, not learning. You can?t keep saying children are going to have to take an infinite ride.?

 

 

To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e- mail or call 357-4323.

 

 


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