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June 19, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to fine-tune bell times for bus efficiency

Restructuring school start times requires careful planning and collaboration with key stakeholders. Overcoming the obstacles can reap big savings in transportation costs.

by Stephane Babcock

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When Arby Creach headed the transportation department at Orange County Public Schools in Florida, the district saved $10 million by restructuring bell times.
<p>When Arby Creach headed the transportation department at Orange County Public Schools in Florida, the district saved $10 million by restructuring bell times.</p>

Adding the right ingredients
When it comes to formulating a plan to adjust bell times, transportation departments need to carefully choose the ingredients for their recipe for change.

John Fahey, past assistant superintendent of service center operations at Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Schools and now senior consultant at Tyler Technologies, says that there are four important elements to put together an efficient bell time plan. The first step is connecting the location of buses when they are empty with their next run. The best connection happens when these are in close vicinity and compatible within the time frame.

“This type of scheduling minimizes the in-between travel time and distance [deadhead], making a successful connection much more likely,” Fahey says, adding that routing software can help identify these good connections.

Consistent school arrival and dismissal times are the second ingredient. Making these tiers applicable to all schools is important, because giving individual schools the option of setting their own bell times could limit the ability to make good connections and negatively affect the third ingredient: allowing for sufficient time between the bell tiers.

“In order for a bus to service multiple schools, it needs to be able to complete a preceding run and have time to travel between the end of the preceding run and the start of the succeeding run,” Fahey says.

The final ingredient is to assign schools to the bell tiers so that there is a consistent number of runs scheduled for each tier. This is critical, because the minimum number of buses needed to service the routing plan is determined by the highest number of buses in any one tier. Fahey says that one of the most important savings opportunities for most school districts is a properly balanced bell time structure.

Favorable odds
In some instances, transportation departments have more than just cost savings on their side when attempting to alter bell times. Newly constructed schools make the adjustments a necessity instead of just a possibility.

Michael Shields, director of transportation and auxiliary services at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore., had time on his hands when it came to restructuring bell times, since construction of the district’s newly planned schools would take up to two years to complete.

“Approaching the change through a process is very important,” Shields says. “Thinking through the details — and from the perspective of the educators and other support departments — is vital.”

To map out his strategy, he met with the superintendent and the leadership staff members who oversaw the school principals. Shields gave them a visual presentation that helped to “answer the ‘why’ questions before they are asked.”

The district considered 14 bell time proposals before final adoption.

“You must consider each area and the impact schedule changes will have on them,” Shields explains. “Think of the Olympic circles: We are all connected but independent. Neither are we separate circles standing alone.”    

Stephane Babcock is a writer with more than seven years of experience in covering the pupil transportation industry.

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