Education News

Proposed ANWSD-MAUSD merger faces bus challenges

VERGENNES — If the Addison Northwest School District and the Mount Abraham Unified School District were to merge — a move under consideration — the new, enlarged district would need to design a school bus system able to transport secondary students across longer distances than they’re used to traveling, at a cost and in a timeframe everyone can live with.

Some kids would spend 60-90 minutes on a bus — both to and coming from schools — plus spending on busing would go up by $385,000 to $880,000.

Creating an acceptable transportation plan would not be impossible, according a transportation consultant Tim Ammon, but it won’t exactly be easy, either.

“It is our opinion that transportation is not necessarily a barrier to doing this (merger) in any way, but there are some continuing things that would need to be thought about,” Ammon, of Decision Support Group (DSG), told the ANWSD/MAUSD Merger Study Committee via Zoom at its Nov. 1 meeting.

The Merger Study Committee was formed in April by the two districts to determine the feasibility of a merger, which they hope would help address ongoing struggles with declining enrollment and rising education costs. The committee has been meeting since July and has given itself until next fall to make a determination and, if warranted, have a proposal ready to be voted on by Election Day 2022.

STARTING POINT

For their study, Ammon and his colleagues began with the following baseline data, based on current figures:

  • 29 bus routes: 10 serving ANWSD and 19 serving MAUSD.
  • 1,232 secondary students: 504 middle schoolers and 728 high schoolers.
  • 435 established bus stops across the combined total of 10 ANWSD and MAUSD communities.
  • some students living as far as 20-22 miles away from the schools they’d be required to attend.

Assuming a merged district where Vergennes Union High School is converted to a middle school hosting grades 6-8, and all high schoolers attend Mount Abraham in Bristol, transportation would look something like this:

  • Bristol-area K-5 students needing transportation to and from Bristol-area schools.
  • Vergennes-area K-5 students needing transportation to and from Vergennes-area schools.
  • Hundreds of middle schoolers in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro riding buses to and from Vergennes, while at the same time, hundreds of high schoolers from Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham would be traveling in the opposite direction, riding buses to and from Bristol.

Ammon presented two possible transportation system options, aiming for a targeted maximum of 60 students per bus and a targeted maximum ride time of 60 minutes, one way.

  • Option 1: create a dedicated transportation system to move all those secondary students back and forth, while refining existing K-5 routes.
  • Option 2: create a shuttle system to connect each district’s existing transportation systems.

DEDICATED SYSTEM

Option 1 would require a total of 39 buses (including 10 new ones), but because 15 of the one-way routes would take longer than an hour, with four of them approaching the 90-minute mark, the number of buses needed would probably be more like 43-45, Ammon said. Total net cost impact: $770,000 to $880,000 per year in addition to what the districts already pay for transportation.

This option would depend heavily on the availability of drivers though.

“Finding something like 15 or 17 additional bus drivers is at least one of the big challenges that we would have to accomplish here,” Ammon told the committee. “As most of you know … these folks are not materializing across the country, including Vermont, and consequently transportation services are really suffering at the moment.”

And it’s not likely to get better in the next couple of years, he predicted.

Ammon likes Option 2 better.

SHUTTLES

Option 2 two presents many of the same challenges as Option 1, but it would be cheaper and it would require fewer bus drivers.

In this scenario, Vergennes-area high school students would ride buses as they normally would, from their homes to Vergennes, and then transfer to a shuttle that would take them directly to Mount Abe, the new district’s high school.

Meanwhile, Bristol-area middle schoolers would transfer to a shuttle in Bristol, which would take them directly to the district’s new middle school in Vergennes.

This plan assumes 5-10 minutes of transfer time and 20-minute rides between Bristol and Vergennes, on top of whatever time it takes for students to reach their respective transfer points, Ammon said.

If the new merged school district preserved each school’s current starting and ending times, or bell times (start and finish of the school day), this option would require 7-10 new buses, to be used as shuttles, at a total additional cost of $385,000 to $550,000 a year over current spending on buses — a substantial potential savings over Option 1.

But it would be even better if the new district adjusted those bell times to allow for better transportation coordination, Ammon suggested. The number of new buses/shuttles could then be reduced to 2-3, costing only $110,000 to $165,000 a year.

PROBLEM-SOLVING

Some problems would remain, though, Ammon said.

Though more efficient than Option 1 with its 15 one-way routes longer than one hour in duration, Option 2 would still have nine such routes.

It would be especially challenging to provide reasonable ride times for students living in towns at the edges of the new district, like Addison, Lincoln and Starksboro, Ammon said. Some DSG customers have dealt with this issue by adding Wi-Fi to some of their buses, enabling kids to do homework and accomplish other tasks while riding the bus.

“In some places it’s been extremely effective,” Ammon said, though he acknowledged it may be difficult to get a Wi-Fi signal in some areas of Lincoln and Starksboro.

It will also be challenging to accommodate athletics and other afterschool activities, as well as daytime field trips. Additional buses would probably be needed for those services, Ammon said.

Regardless of which option is pursued, the DSG presentation suggested it will be important for a potential new district to develop effective communication strategies “to address what are likely to be perceived longer rides for shuttle students …

“Give people the opportunity to understand what are the things that we’re trying to do to mitigate whatever might be from a negative perspective the challenge of ride times, to the challenge of how students are assigned to buses, in order to be able to ensure that the system is being designed to accommodate what those concerns are.”

Merger Committee member Troy Paradee of Bristol didn’t find anything particularly shocking in the presentation, he said afterward.

“We live in a rural area, and when you buy a house in Vermont, you’ve got to be prepared for the consequences, right?” Paradee said. “The farther you live away from a town center, that’s the decision you make.”

One of the concerns that remained for Paradee, however — and this was keeping in mind that the reason the Merger Study Committee existed at all was that the districts were seeking solutions to their ongoing financial struggles — is equal access to afterschool activities.

“If I’m a middle schooler and there’s a school play, and I live in Lincoln and the school play is in Vergennes, that’s going to be a constraint for some kids,” he said. In fact, the problem already exists, he said. “Some kids already don’t do some things because it’s hard to get back from even their closer regional schools.”

The committee needed to consider student equity in that context, too, Paradee said.

“Everything you put at the end of a school day now, after the buses leave, will be almost impossible for a lot of kids to be a part of (in a merged district). So we have to really be thinking about, systemically … how we make sure to provide for these kids.”

To see the slides from DSG’s transportation study presentation, click here.

Northeast Addison Television (NEAT) recorded the entire Nov. 1 meeting, which can be now be viewed here.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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