Pasco schools to cut bus routes amid driver shortage, affecting thousands

Reductions of “unfunded” or “courtesy” bus routes will begin in the fall for many middle and high school students.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | March 31, 2022

Thousands of Pasco County middle and high school students are slated to lose their bus rides when classes resume after summer break.

Citing an ongoing problem recruiting and retaining bus drivers, school district officials informed parents Wednesday and Thursday that a service they call “unfunded busing” will be discontinued. The changes would impact families living within a two-mile radius of campus, and who have a safe walking path to school.

“It makes it more possible for us to get the other kids to school on time,” district spokesperson Steve Hegarty said.

The decision comes three months after the district attempted to resolve its driver shortage and the resulting late bus arrivals by moving from three starting times to four. The rationale at the time was that the district could rely upon fewer drivers to handle routes that were spread out.

That initiative did not have the desired effect, though. Buses continued to run behind schedule, and job vacancy rates remained high.

School Board member Megan Harding noted that the district still has more than 50 unfilled driver positions, without accounting for the daily absences of those who call in sick or take time off.

“We’re trying everything we possibly can,” Harding said. “We’re in a really tough spot right now.”

Hillsborough County schools eliminated unfunded, or “courtesy,” bus routes in 2017. Pasco officials have discussed the idea previously, but haven’t done much in this area since 2008.

News of the administration’s action, which will take place without a board vote, caused a buzz among parents on social media. Some criticized the plan, calling it “ridiculous” that some children would have to walk two miles to school early in the morning.

Five middle schools and nine high schools begin classes daily before 7:30 a.m.

Traffic safety concerns came up frequently among the concerns. State law sets criteria for hazardous walking routes within the two-mile radius from schools, and district officials have said they will continue to provide buses for students who live in areas meeting those definitions.

Others said that some parents have become too reliant on the schools for transportation and child care, suggesting that communities should come together and help one another cope with such matters.

School Board chairperson Cynthia Armstrong said she expected some people will be unhappy with the changes. She expressed hope that they will understand the difficulty the district faces keeping certified bus drivers, and the reality that the district cannot get children who live far from schools to campus on time while also providing rides to children for whom the state doesn’t require or fund transportation.

“It’s not something we would like to do,” Armstrong said. “But it’s something we really need to do, to provide the bus runs in an effective manner.”

The change would allow the district to cut 89 drop-offs and pickups, affecting about 3,000 students, Hegarty said. It might also permit the district to retire its fourth start time at 10:10 a.m., which has proven unpopular among many families.

Officials continue to investigate approaches for bus and bell schedules for 2022-23, with a recommendation expected to come to the board in May. The transportation department continues to advertise for bus drivers.

Hegarty said families will get more messages about how the decision will affect them individually, with several reminders leading up to the next academic year.

“We’re just trying to warn people ahead of time,” he said.

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