School buses ready to get rolling

Routes: County officials are set to take their 10 months of preparation to the streets for tomorrow's opening of classes.

August 28, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Winship Wheatley is ready.

Tomorrow morning, more than 500 school buses will pick up more than 55,000 kids in Anne Arundel County and take them to school. By the end of the day, after the students have been returned, those buses will have traveled more than 50,000 miles and stopped about 10,000 times.

"We've been preparing [for] this day for the past 10 months," said Wheatley, supervisor of the Division of Pupil Transportation for Anne Arundel public schools.

On Wednesday, with less than a week until the start of school, Wheatley, who has been on the job since 1988, was calm. But his work was far from over.

The previous day, the bus routes had been posted on the Internet, and local papers with the routes printed inside had been published. That meant the phone calls were already starting, mostly from parents who had questions or were hoping for a closer bus stop.

It will only get more hectic tomorrow, when the buses begin their rounds. If past years are any indication, the phones will ring nonstop every day through Thursday, he said.

"There are lots and lots of things that have to be corrected or adjusted, or we just have to give correct information," said Wheatley, who has a staff of seven planners and coordinates the stops and starts for buses run by about 25 contractors. No matter how carefully the transportation division plans the routes, tweaks in the first few weeks are inevitable, he said.

About a quarter of the students are either completely new to the bus system - they have moved to the neighborhood or are starting kindergarten - or are making the transition from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school or are switching schools because of redistricting.

Some of the bumps are typical of the first week and will work themselves out without changes from transportation officials. After a summer-long break, the roads are crowded again with buses, with parents taking their kids to school and with teachers, said Wheatley. It takes a while for the car-driving public to get used to that again.

And there are inevitable delays. If 20 kids are at a bus stop, they might take several minutes to decide who will get on the bus first and where everyone will sit. By the second week, that has been worked out, he said.

Many of the phone calls are about the location of bus stops. The general rule is that the bus makes one stop per neighborhood, and the parents are free to get together to decide the location, as long as it's safe. Then the stops have to be authorized by the pupil transportation division.

Planning the routes is a long, complicated process. Linda McIntre, in charge of Arundel and Meade high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them, has seen three schools open in the past five years - Meade Middle, Piney Orchard Elementary and, this year, Seven Oaks Elementary. New development has meant new families, which has also changed the routes.

Yet, on Wednesday, McIntre's office was notably free of chaos.

"I'm ready to roll," she said.

On a large corkboard along one wall in her office, rectangles of paper with the routes and stops were thumb-tacked in vertical rows under the bus numbers, with most of the 86 buses being assigned three to five routes. Each trip ticket was color-coded with a sticker showing what school it served.

Getting to this stage has not been easy.

"The west side of the county has changed dramatically in the past five to six years," she said. New development has meant new families sending children to school, and new roads that must be added to the bus routes.

To plan her routes, "I work from the map and work out on the site," she said. "Just knowledge of the area, going out to take a look at it." She drives the roads, checking out conditions and potential bus stops.

Wheatley noted that most of the planners make only minimal use of computer programs showing roads and student population, instead relying on their knowledge of their areas and on standard road maps.

Still, computers have drastically changed his job. The Internet enables him to post the routes online, and an intranet system lets him make route changes that are instantly sent to schools and bus drivers, and are posted on school Web sites, he said.

In the final stretch of the preparations, the Anne Arundel offices seemed remarkably neat and quiet. There were no large-scale maps on the wall, no routes marked in crayon, no rolled-up charts in sight. Though the phones rang regularly, the hum of activity was muted.

After so much planning, McIntre, for one, was eager to see her carefully orchestrated plan move from tiny pieces of paper on a corkboard to actual buses carrying children to school.

"The neatest thing," she said, "is when the first day of school starts and it all comes together."

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