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Buses Get in Gear for Fall Classes


More than 150,000 North County elementary, junior high and high school students will make their way back to the classroom next week. But, in true Southern California fashion, few of these children will walk to school.

Some will drive themselves, others will be dropped off by parents. Most North County students, however, will ride the bus. They will be bused to their schools from as far as 45 miles and as near as a couple of blocks.

In most school districts, at least 50% of the students ride the bus. In rural districts, where there is an absence of sidewalks and safe walking routes, 100% of the children are shuttled back and forth every school day.

Most North County school districts own and operate their own fleets, and the buses are used for everything from taking students to and from school to providing transportation for out-of-town field trips. In the Julian Union School District, the bus drivers double as custodians at the elementary school and high school.

A handful of districts--Rancho Santa Fe Union, Spencer Valley, Escondido Union, Carlsbad Unified and Vallecitos--provide no bus service. There, most children get to school via car pools or family car.

In North County, the bus systems vary from as few as four buses in a district to as many as 100. All are managed in-house, unlike its neighbor to the south, the San Diego Unified School District, which reinforces its fleet with buses from four independent charter companies.

The San Dieguito Transportation Cooperative has one bus, vintage 1966, that is still used daily to ferry about 65 students. The Poway Unified School District has one of the youngest fleets around. Its oldest bus is a 1973 model, but it has several 1990 models as well.

Most buses have a 30-year life span and hold as many as 70 children.

The price tag on a district operating its own transportation fleet is formidable. The average cost of a single school bus is $100,000; to that initial investment, the continuing expense of salaries, fuel, maintenance, training and administration must be added.

"It's a Catch 22," said Tom Chaffin, director of transportation for the Poway Unified School District. "More kids are taking the bus to school, however, school districts, especially in California, are having to cut transportation because of funding. Transportation is not a mandated service so if it doesn't receive mandated money, districts have to reduce the services and push the walking distances out further."

Some districts require students to buy bus passes to help cover the cost of the trip to and from school. Poway, for instance, charges $90 per child annually while Valley Center, which buses 94% of its students, charges nothing at all.

Currently, in Ramona, parents and school officials are squaring off over the district's intention to charge $150 annually for a child to ride the bus.

To control costs, five elementary school districts along the coast--Del Mar, Encinitas, Cardiff, San Dieguito and Solana Beach--formed the San Dieguito Transportation Cooperative. In existence since 1977, the co-op is made up of 50 buses, 32 routes and the superintendents of each member school district.

Woody Woodruff, dispatcher for the cooperative, said there have been few problems with five school superintendents sharing a bus system. The biggest puzzle is trying to schedule pickups and drop-offs to ensure that every child gets to school on time.

"There was some controversy over the superintendents wanting different times, wanting to go earlier than they had been, but they had to sit down and work it out," Woodruff said.

All the co-op members except Del Mar charge the students for a bus pass. Cost ranges from $100 to $120 for a full year to $30 for a quarter or $55 for a semester. If there are more than two children in a family riding the bus, each additional child pays half price.

Most elementary school students spend less than half an hour each way on the bus, Woodruff said. The first child picked up in the morning is the last child dropped off in the afternoon and he or she spends less than an hour on the bus both ways, he said.

Although almost every school district has distance qualifications for which students are eligible to ride the bus, safety is the topmost consideration. The general rule of thumb is that students must live at least a mile from their school to be eligible to ride the bus, but often that is waived because of hazardous walking or biking conditions.

Rural areas, such as Pauma and San Pasqual Union, where there are no sidewalks and long swaths of highway, all students are bused. But urban areas present their own problems.

In Oceanside, for example, the 1-mile radius rule is flexible because of busy streets and "attractive" hazards. It is very common for children living less than a mile from school to ride the bus, said Dan Armstrong, a spokesman for the district.

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