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Bus stop blues: VISD struggles at start of school year

By Carolina Astrain
Aug. 31, 2013 at 3:31 a.m.
Updated Sept. 1, 2013 at 4:01 a.m.

Monica Hysquierdo, 17, gets onto the bus at the stop near her home in Victoria. Hysquierdo has ridden the bus since junior high. "I think it's really useful for parents who can't take their kids to school or can't afford a car for school," she said. "And I always feel safe," she added.

DID YOU KNOW?

Here's a look at the Victoria school district's transportation department at a glance:

TOTAL ROUTE MILES LAST SCHOOL YEAR:

• Regular education: 489,889

• Career and Technical Education, Victoria Area Center for Advanced Learning: 18,216

• Special needs: 201,986

STATE FUNDING

The total state allotment was $864,955 last budget year (2012-13). The funding is based on miles traveled and ridership. There are three parts on the allotment: special education, regular education and academic transportation (taking students to and from the Career and Technology Institute and VCAL). The funding formula has not changed since 1981.

DRIVERS

To become a VISD bus driver, first you have to pass a background check along with a drug screening. A physical exam is also required and paid for by the district. Before anyone can drive a bus, they must possess a commercial driver's license along with passenger and school bus endorsements.

TRANSPORTATION STAFF

• There are 65 employees, including drivers, monitors and mechanics. There are 42 assigned drivers. Additionally, six others are qualified to drive a bus and frequently cover routes in addition to their regular job duties. Due to the shortage, Angie Sherman, VISD transportation director, also picks up some routes when needed.

THE LONG RIDE HOME

• The longest route is a special needs route that covers 62 miles on the morning run and 75 miles in the afternoon.

KEEPING TRACK

• The transportation department uses a program called Transfinder to develop route sheets for each driver on a special needs route. The special needs route sheet is a turn-by-turn tracing of the route of the bus, indicating stops and students expected at that stop.

For regular routes, the route sheet is developed using neighborhood corner stop locations. Student rosters are developed after the first of the year for regular education riders. Regular education bus stops are available on the VISD website. Parents may also call the transportation department and are encouraged to do so before the first day of school.

Source: VISD

Victoria West High School senior Monica Hysquerdo, 17, has ridden the bus since the sixth grade.

For the last six years, the round trip to school has felt like a safe one, she said.

"Our driver is really cool and laid-back," Hysquerdo said. "He gets us everywhere safely."

From time to time, her bus has broken down, causing delays, she said.

But despite those minor hiccups, Hysquerdo said her faith in the Victoria school district public transportation department remains true.

Others are less forgiving.

During its first week of school, the district's transportation department endured criticism from the public after sending a student to the wrong campus.

Problems

Amanda Trevino, 30, was furious when she learned her autistic 5-year-old son was dropped off at the wrong school.

From his Victoria home, Gavyn Suniga boarded one of the district's 13 special needs buses Monday morning.

Two buses are dedicated to students who live in special needs residential facilities. Another one transports teen parents and their children.

Of the remaining 10 buses, nine have a scheduled transfer at the transportation department headquarters.

But when Gavyn got ready to make his transfer, his bus driver and aide put him on the wrong bus, which sent him to another campus.

School district officials assumed full responsibility for the error made by the students' bus aide and driver.

"I was livid," Trevino said. "Anything could have happened to him."

The district is required by law to provide transportation for its special needs students, VISD Communications Director Diane Boyett wrote in an email.

"For regular education students, this is a service of the district," Boyett wrote.

VISD buses 230 special needs students across 13 different routes.

The budget for transportation is $2,460,723, according to Boyett. From that, a little more than $1 million is spent on transporting special needs students.

Routes consolidation

During the last school year, the district had to cut three routes and made changes to others because it did not have enough drivers.

This year, the district is short five route drivers, and it would need four more to reestablish the eliminated routes.

From her Old Victoria home apartment, Hysquerdo's campus is 5.4 miles away, or an 11-minute drive without traffic.

But in order for the West student to get to school on time by riding the bus, she needs to be ready at her stop more than an hour before the first bell rings.

"I spend it listening to music on my headphones," Hysquerdo said. "I'd drive to school if I could, but I don't have a car."

The shortage of drivers from last year is what has made these routes longer, wrote Boyett.

"As each route was eliminated, it meant those students moved to another route, which, through a ripple effect, had an impact on many other routes," Boyett wrote. "The end result is that students have to be on the bus for longer periods of time in some situations."

Recruiting

In response to the shortage, the district has started looking at hiring university students, Boyett wrote.

A large, blue banner stretches across the side of a yellow bus with recruitment information.

"It takes someone with a special sense of dedication to be a driver," VISD Transportation Director Angie Sherman wrote in an email. "This is not a typical job. Our drivers know that they are frequently the first 'school' face a child will see in the morning."

The district's transportation training salary is $8.40 per hour, and beginning drivers are paid $11.31 per hour.

Additionally, drivers have the option of taking other jobs in the district between routes to work in areas like child nutrition and maintenance.

The district competes for drivers with the private sector, including the oil field, Sherman wrote.

"We offer the training in-house for someone who wants to be a driver to get their commercial driver's license. We even pay the prospective driver during training," Sherman wrote. "We do this in an effort to attract people interested in a career. Sadly, in some situations, the drivers leave us after a short while to take higher paying jobs in the private sector."

Safety

And as far as school bus safety goes, Sherman wrote, mistakes are less likely to occur if a parent is at the bus stop when the driver brings their child home.

"At the beginning of the year, the drivers are learning who the children are, and the child may not know their address, but they do know their family," Sherman wrote. "This greatly reduces the likelihood of a child getting off in the wrong place."

Other safety measures include recording each time a student gets off at the wrong stop.

"If the driver knows the child is getting off at the wrong stop, the driver will stop the child," Boyett wrote. "In some situations, the child insists and leaves the bus."

At that point, the driver documents the incident, and a safety referral is written.

If a young child attempts to leave at the wrong stop, the driver would stop him or her and notify either the parent or the transportation department.

Each of the district's operating buses is equipped with security cameras.

The video can be used to monitor driver progress on the job or resolve complaints, Boyett wrote.

"Every child placed on one of our buses represents the trust of a parent," Sherman wrote. "We will always seek to do what is right for every child. Many of our employees, including myself, have family members riding these buses. We all want what is best for children and work every day to provide safe and courteous transportation."

Trevino said she plans to take her special needs son directly to school on her own the rest of the school year.

Her other non-special needs children, however, will remain on the bus.

"I feel OK with them riding because they're older, and they know what's going on," Trevino said. "They all have cellphones, so they can call or text me if anything happens."

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