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.�
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.