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September 20, 2012
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School buses navigate around budget cuts

When Christy Blach sat down to design the bus routes for the 2012-13 school year, she knew every minute would count. Lake Tahoe Unified School District had reduced the hours buses would spend on the roads by about 25 percent, and as transportation supervisor, Blach's job was to try and make the routes as streamlined as possible.

Blach, who spent nine years driving school buses in Lake Tahoe, needed all her Tahoe street-savvy to design this year's transit schedule, which has served about 1,600 students per day in the fall.

"She can look at a set of routes, analyze it and find the most effective way to get between two points," LTUSD Facilities Director Steve Morales said.

But even Blach's wizardry couldn't erase all the effects felt by the cuts. The district reduced the number of active buses by four, stopped serving 70 stops between the elementary, middle and high schools, reduced driver time and laid off three drivers.

Since state funding for transportation only covers about 60 percent of what it costs to run the bus system while the rest of the money comes from the general fund, Morales said transportation is often one of the first departments to feel a squeeze during tight economic times.

But up until this year, LTUSD never had to lay off drivers, he said.

Matt Bishop is one of the drivers who lost his job this year. He's worked with the district for five years and continues to substitute for other drivers when he's needed at the depot.

At the start of the school year, he said he heard a few complaints from parents, but for the most part both students and their families have been understanding of the new limits.

"I've been fielding phone calls from concerned parents. They've had generations of kids at a stop and now that stop's gone. It's tough," Bishop said.

It could get even tougher when snow starts to fall. The routes are tight already and snow just complicates the situation.

"Once winter hits, it can delay our arrival at the schools. So that's a little bit of variability. It's going to be tighter this year. Last year we had a bit more wiggle-room," Morales said.

Even though there are fewer stops, Blach said the coverage is the same. Some students might just have to walk a bit farther to get home. Students can also expect to get cozier on buses that are pushing capacity limits. Eighty-four high schoolers on one bus makes for some serious overcrowding.

"Unloading and loading time is up because there are more kids on the bus. Every minute counts. Every 30 seconds counts. I always looking at my watch when I'm driving, seeing where I can make up time," Bishop said.

Judy Ward, who's been driving school buses in the district since 2004, said she can't stress enough the importance of the transit system. Many of the students can't afford cars, and their parents are too busy to bus them to and from the classroom, she said.

"If we didn't have these buses, these kids couldn't get to school. Many of them are living on the bare minimum and something needs to be done," Ward said.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Sep 20, 2012 10:00PM Published Sep 20, 2012 09:57PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.