Lee's Summit School District has always claimed to put students first, to be cutting-edge and forward-thinking. But, when push comes to shove, is that the truth?
During the 2018-19 school year, LSR7 community members were surveyed to gather feedback regarding processes and to find ways to make the district's internal systems better. According to published statistics, CFMP Engagement Series I had 4,730 online survey respondents. Buses. You either love them or loathe them. Most of us can remember experiences we had on school buses during our own school years. Whether you met your new best friend on the bus, shared laughs and tears with your peers, more than likely there is a vivid memory of bus rides. Buses are still the most utilized and safest form of transportation to and from school -- serving millions of students each year.
What could possibly make a bus ride better than time to catch up with friends? After evaluating CFMP Series I results and comments, the LSR7 Transportation Department decided that they could make a bus ride even more enjoyable for students. In an April 2019 interview with KSHB-41 News , Keith Henry, Lee's Summit R-7 Director of Transportation, said several students spent more than one hour on the bus daily and that the average bus ride for high school and middle school students was around 50 minutes each way. By incorporating new procedures beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, LSR7 Transportation hoped to cut 20 minutes off every student’s commute, giving students the "gift of time." Since LSR7 owns their own bus fleet, unlike many neighboring school districts that lease buses, this should be a fairly easy feat, right?
Let's break down Keith Henry's plans to give students back the "gift of time" by reducing bus ride times.
Plan: In order to cut down on ride time, buses would begin to pick up students at neighborhood stops, instead of in front of individual homes or street corners. The predicted average walk for a student was less than 800 feet, equivalent to half of a lap around a standard track. *Additional considerations when planning consolidated bus stops (which really should have been requirements) were a walkway that was at least 4-feet wide, adjacent to the road, free from drainage ditches, sluiceways, swales or channels, where students may walk without being required to walk on the road surface.
What really happened: Upon inspecting new bus stops, it was found that several were far from the 800-foot "average walk" proposed by Mr. Henry. Some children waited at entrances to subdivisions off of busy highways. Some children were required to walk through wooded areas and wait at stops in front of registered sex offender's homes. Some children had no other choice but to walk in gutters to arrive at stops safely since there were no sidewalks leading to the new, consolidated bus stop. The majority of bus stops were out of sight of any parent, leading parents to have to drive or walk with students, especially in inclement weather.
Additionally, per LSR7 Transportation policies, students are required to be at a bus stop five minutes before scheduled pick up time, and buses are picking up middle school and high school students even EARLIER than last year. I heard from an acquaintance that his son has a bus ride of over an hour each way to middle school. So, every morning he gets up to walk or drive his son to a bus stop 1/4 mile away, out of sight of their home, to be waiting at 6:10 a.m. School begins at 7:30 a.m.
The gift of time?
“We know idle time, sitting on the bus, is not the best time spent. Shrinking that time and minimizing that time will have a benefit, a positive benefit, for our students, our community and definitely our parents,” Henry said.
What about the parents who work? The parents who can't wait with students at bus stops or provide rides to and from school?
There were many concerns as this "consolidated bus stop" plan rolled out, and in August 2019, over 1,200 community members signed a petition begging LSR7 to reconsider the reorganization of transportation -- not only for the safety of all students, but to truly give students back the "gift of time." 1,200+ signatures. Twenty-five percent of those who answered the CFMP Phase I survey noting the need for reduced bus ride times. Fox 4 News interviewed parents and asked the district for an explanation.
As of today, there have been minimal changes. In a presentation to the School Board in September 2019 (see below), Henry shared data on Stop Change Requests. He noted that there were 243 requests made by parents to change bus stop locations; 129 were approved, 65 were denied, and 49 were in process. He also stated that the average bus ride time was 22 minutes -- only 1/3 of the actual time of the acquaintance's son I mentioned previously -- and that the average walk distance to bus stops was .13 mile opposed to .06 mile during the 2018-19 school year.
Were these changes REALLY made to give students back the gift of time? Or was it just another way to reduce transportation costs and staff in order to move money around to other budget areas? We may never know.