DELMAR — Bethlehem Central is pitching a proposal that, among other ideas, would ask elementary school families living within 3/4 of a mile away to drive their children to school or have them walk.
The plan is just one of a few the district is considering to phase-in to practice to address a nationwide and local driver shortage. Bethlehem is proposing changes to bus transportation eligibility to all five of its elementary schools, its middle school and high school for next year.
Currently, all elementary school students can take the school bus. Middle school students who live within a half-mile of the middle school and high school students who live within one mile of the high school are not eligible for transportation.
Under the new plan, elementary students living within a 3/4-mile radius, middle school students within one mile, and high school students within a 1 1/2-miles, would be ineligible for school transportation.
The district currently has 58 permanent drivers on staff to cover 59 bus routes every day. In 2019, the district had 87 permanent drivers. The district changed its payment structure for its bus drivers earlier this year, offering the highest hourly wage within Albany County at $23.60, in an attempt to recruit more drivers.
That’s step one in a three-year plan that includes changing transportation eligibility next year, and staggering school start times between the three levels of learning.
The district has discussed possible changes to transportation eligibility, which could impact up to 800 students beginning in 2022-23, since last November. The proposal now on the table would need to be approved by a public vote in May before they are implemented.
If voters approve the proposal, the district expects it could eliminate as many as five bus routes, reducing the number of drivers needed by just as many, and stabilize transportation needs.
Recruiting as many drivers as possible, streamlining routes and ridership and building more efficiency into the system continue to be priorities for both the Transportation Department and the district. This year, the driver shortage has resulted in the high school having to return to an earlier start time, late arrivals and departures, changes to the late bus schedules for secondary students, and a shortage of buses for athletics and other afterschool or extracurricular needs.
District families were asked to provide the district feedback in an email last week. The Board of Education is expected to discuss details from that feedback when it meets again on Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Board members are expected to make a decision on eligibility next month. District residents would then be able to vote on the changes adopted by the board during the Annual Budget Vote, scheduled for May 17.