Albemarle County Public Schools is exploring new ways to improve student safety on school buses despite funding cuts to its Transportation Services department in recent years. However, cost-saving measures may have motivated some students and parents to drive to school instead.

While enrollment in Albemarle County Public Schools has grown steadily, the number of regular school bus riders has seen a slight decline, according to data provided to Charlottesville Tomorrow by the division’s Department of Transportation Services.

Slightly over half of Albemarle County students are regular bus riders, or 7,328 in the morning and 6,977 in the afternoon. That’s down slightly from 2013-14, even though the division’s enrollment grew by nearly 400 students during that time period. Morning and afternoon ridership both increased by 1 percent last year after falling 3 percent the year before.

Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the division, acknowledged a slow but steady decline from a peak of about 8,000 daily bus riders. “It’s not a concern in any significant way,” he said.

Albemarle County is conducting a parent survey to identify the causes behind this trend. Jim Foley, the division’s transportation director, suspects that it’s largely motivated by a consolidation of routes and reduction of bus stops that took effect during the Great Recession.

The division reduced transportation spending by $1.5 million between 2009 and 2011. These savings helped maintain class sizes in schools during the recession but also resulted in longer bus rides and crowding on buses.

County regulations state that elementary school students should not walk more than 0.3 miles to their bus stops. That distance increases to half a mile for middle- and high-schoolers. Consolidating the routes required more students to cover greater distances to get to their stops.

“We noticed that with the consolidation of those routes, we began to see some reductions in ridership,” Giaramita said. “It’s reasonable to think that had some impact on ridership.”

Foley urges parents to consider the proven safety record of school buses. He said the county’s school buses have logged 4.8 million miles without injury to students. “The bus is by far the safest way to get to school,” Foley said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that students riding school buses accounted for just 1 percent of student traffic fatalities during school travel hours in an eight-year span. Twenty-three percent of fatalities were students being driven by their parents, and 58 percent were driving themselves or riding with friends.

Giaramita said that some parents might be concerned by Albemarle’s recent pilot study of stop-arm cameras on school buses, which estimated that drivers illegally pass county school buses about 6,000 times each year, potentially endangering children.

“Some of the publicity around that might have had an impact on people’s thinking about riding school buses,” Giaramita said. “But there’s no way to measure that.”

Albemarle County Public Schools is currently working to form a partnership with the Albemarle County Police Department that would have police review footage from stop-arm cameras to issue tickets for traffic violations. Foley said that those cameras could be installed by the end of this school year.

The division is also considering making seat belts mandatory on its school buses. Giaramita said Transportation Services would give the School Board a cost estimate and a recommendation on seat belts in early 2017.

School buses and bus stops are known nationwide to be hotspots for bullying. About 36 percent of Albemarle County students said bullying occurred on their school bus or at their stop last year, rising from 26.8 percent in 2013-2014. A similar increase has been reported within school buildings.

Foley said it was unclear whether bullying is on the rise or if heightened concerns about bullying caused students to misidentify one-time incidents as repeated bullying.

“We pay attention to [those statistics] and take them seriously,” said Foley.

Giaramita said all bus drivers are instructed to report instances of bullying to a school administrator. “Our drivers get extensive training in [bullying prevention],” he said. “Maintaining a safe environment is an important part of their job.”

Foley said it is important for bus drivers to develop a good relationship with their riders so they can trust the students to behave well.

“After drivers tend to know kids for one or two years, it tends to smooth out,” he said. “Bus drivers are the only school employees that can have the same student for 15 years. They get attached to the students.”

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.