Going the extra mile

For the right programs, students spend hours per day on the bus.

Published September 3, 2006

At the ungodly hour of 4:06 a.m., Dennis Williams awakens the 2001 Thomas Built school bus with a turn of his wrist. Under the hood, 200 horses rustle to their feet.

Something about the grumble of a diesel engine gives the morning a jolt of urgency.

Before 4 p.m. Williams, 62, will burn about 30 gallons of fuel on Pinellas bus route 738. He will stop and open his doors at more than two dozen street corners. He will travel from the suburban streets of southeastern St. Petersburg to a high school campus near the bayous of Tarpon Springs, then drive back again.

He will do this once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Two round trips. A daily trek of 200 miles.

And with enough seats for 65 students, he'll never have more than 14 riders. Fewer than 10 make the southbound leg of his morning run.

To hear his engine rumble is to hear the sound of money going out the tailpipe. But Williams and the young people behind him smell opportunity as well.

The bus is a symbol of what is good and not so good about Pinellas school choice, a massively inclusive yet inherently inefficient system that finds itself under a microscope.

District officials are preparing for a robust public discussion in the coming months about the future of choice. The first step will be a public survey next month.

Among the key questions: Is choice worth the cost?

Before Pinellas launched the system in 2003, the district spent about $1.6-million a year on fuel for a fleet of 515 yellow buses. They logged 11-million miles annually and carried 41,000 students a day.

Today, even as enrollment shrinks across Pinellas, the fleet has expanded to 731 buses. Fuel costs are fast approaching $6-million. Annual mileage has soared to 16.5-million, and daily ridership is up to 46,000 students.

Why the increase?

Because more students are heeding choice's call to promote racial desegregation by attending schools farther from home. To get kids there before the first bell, the district must spread them out on more routes.

As a result, Pinellas buses are running only 60 percent full this year, down from 80 percent before choice began. The bus system's budget has swelled from $26-million to $45.5-million in just four years.

In 22 years as a Pinellas school bus driver, Dennis Williams' routes have never been longer. The fact that his bus gets about 8 miles to the gallon and is nowhere near full makes his one of the district's more inefficient routes.

But his young riders say they appreciate the opportunities choice presents.

Kendra Shurtless, a freshman at Tarpon High, spends three hours a day on the round trip from St. Petersburg. But, like her fellow students on the bus, she says it's worth it.

A student in the school's Veterinary Sciences Academy, she says: "I want to graduate and be a vet."

Brianna Ward, 16, can see Lakewood High in St. Petersburg from her house. But she was drawn to the veterinary program at the district's magnet school fair.

"I really like animals; I want to work with tigers," she says. "I was like 'Oh, well, I'll do that.' Little did I know I'd be getting on this bus at 4 o'clock in the morning."

School starts at 7:05.

A junior who plays on Tarpon's softball team, Brianna says she sometimes brings two meals to school so she can eat dinner on practice days. On weekends after football games, she sleeps over with north county friends.

"I live at the school pretty much," she says. But she calls the experience awesome.

Many of the younger students on the southbound leg of Route 738 also have detailed plans for the future. Each morning, Williams takes them to Bay Point Middle School in southern St. Petersburg, known for its math, technology and gifted programs.

Bay Point was the logical choice, says Courtney Clark, whose round trip commute from Palm Harbor takes nearly four hours a day. "It's the only magnet school for math and science in Pinellas County," she says.

Her plan: "I've been wanting (to work in) oceanography and marine biology for most of my life. But just recently I've been learning more about the medical field. And I decided, since I really like being around young children, I would really like the field of pediatric anesthesiology."

On his first stop Thursday morning, Williams - the father of five grown daughters and five grandchildren - smiles and says good morning to a sleepy Brianna Ward.

"This is what it's all for - the kids who are out here early to meet their goals," he says. "She's made a big commitment and she's determined to see it through. And I'm determined to get her there."

As he speaks, Brianna makes a bed of two bus seats, her midsection suspended over the aisle.

Asked what the district should do to change choice, Williams says it might be good to keep elementary school children closer to home. But older students, he says, need the freedom to venture out.

"That's part of their growing up process," he says. "They have to start making choices. And if that's the choice they want to make, you can't deny them."

Other ideas are surfacing as district officials and school board candidates ponder the future. They include reducing the size of choice attendance areas, halving the countywide attendance area for high schools and telling more families who choose faraway schools to arrange their own rides.

The coming public debate arises as the district prepares for the end of race ratios that have kept schools artificially integrated in the first four years of choice. The ratios expire next year.

But across the district - even among those who want racially diverse schools - there is a mounting sense that choice's monster costs must somehow be tamed.

It won't be easy.

Even without choice, school bus systems are costly by their nature. Because they are public enterprises, districts have a mandate to try to accommodate all comers.

Arrangements are made each fall to pick up the 75,000 Pinellas students who qualify for bus rides. But when only 46,000 show up, the district makes a massive adjustment.

It's a bit like guessing how much party food to make when no one sends back an RSVP.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox estimates that a more traditional system - one with less choice - might reduce transportation costs by as much as $16-million.

With that kind of money, he says, the district could further reduce class sizes, afford more classroom materials or finance pay incentives for teachers who work in the district's more challenging schools.

But he cautioned that many Pinellas families are always going to want to try a special program far from home, even though many are now calling for a return to neighborhood schools.

"It's a tough issue for us," Wilcox says. "But it's not just about recouping money. I think it has to be about what we want for our kids and what we want for our teachers and schools."

The cost of school choice:

45.5: Millions of dollars budgeted for "pupil transportation" in Pinellas this school year.

75: Percentage increase in "pupil transportation" operating costs since choice began.

23: Percentage increase in the rest of the school district's operating budget since choice began.

22: Percentage increase in what the state sends Pinellas for bus transportation since choice began.

257: Percentage increase in bus system energy costs, including diesel fuel, since choice began.