BOURBONNAIS — Bourbonnais Elementary School District 53 is looking to solve its history of busing issues that have become even more challenging this year with a national shortage of school bus drivers.
At the Bourbonnais School Board meeting last week, Facilities and Maintenance Supervisor Mike Burmeister presented ideas the administration is considering, such as buying two 12-passenger vans and altering loading procedures in the hopes of improving efficiency.
Burmeister said the district has been relying on retired bus drivers to take routes due to the staffing shortage; however, the number of hours retirees can work per year is limited.
When regular drivers call in sick or take a personal day, it’s a challenge to get everything covered, he said.
“Some states have even called in their National Guard,” he said. “I don’t know about your kids, but most kids are scared when they see people in uniforms and stuff like that when they are getting off the bus. That’s something we don’t really want to do.”
Burmeister said the main area where transportation needs to improve is consistency — in other words, getting kids to school and back home on time on a reliable basis.
Presently, a bus delay at one school has a “ripple effect” and causes delays at the other schools, meaning administrators to have to work overtime because of late buses, he said.
He proposed that colored letters could be placed in bus windows to help younger students identify their buses, and that buses should be parked in the same spot every day so students know exactly where to go.
“There’s a lot of confusion when younger students are out there, they don’t know what bus to get on, they get on the wrong bus; to get people off the bus and reload, it takes time,” Burmeister said.
Additionally, teachers and administrators would take a roll call before the bus arrives so time is not wasted looking for a child that is absent or gone home early, he said.
“Lining up, being released, loading buses needs to be a seamless process because these times are crucial,” he said. “We cannot hold buses for one child, and we cannot return back to school to pick up that one kid that was missing on the bus, because again, now we’ve just made everybody else later.”
Another proposed change would be that buses pick students up by “zones” according to what school they attend; therefore, buses would not be going back and forth to multiple schools, and kids would be riding only with other students from their same school.
To speed up loading procedures, students would be lined up and dismissed by bus, instead of by classroom, he added.
They would also be released from whichever door is closest to where their bus is parked, rather than having all kids rushing out the main door, he said.
Any change or delay of more than 15 minutes would then be communicated via email or text message.
Over the summer, the board approved the purchase of GPS software that would let parents track their child’s bus via an app. That software was being installed last week, Burmeister said.
To make everything work, the district will need to have alternative transportation, he said.
“We can’t make any more bus drivers; we’re tapped out,” he said. “We have to make the routes according to the bus drivers we have.”
The proposal is to buy two 12-passenger vans. Drivers would only need a bus driver permit to drive these, rather than a commercial driver’s license.
The vans would be used to pick up children who live in more remote areas, such as near Kankakee River State Park, which would free up buses to pick up children in more populated areas.
“If you only have two children out there, it’s a 20- to 25-minute round trip,” he said. “In 20 to 25 minutes, a bus can deliver a lot of students home close by.”
The vans would also be used to pick up individual students that have missed the bus, rather than making everyone on the bus late to wait for one child, he said. Special routes such as field trips, sports trips and busing to alternative schools would also be uses for the vans.
Superintendent Adam Ehrman noted that the district is not looking to reduce its number of bus drivers.
“We need bus drivers,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce down the pressures of how many drivers per day that we actually need. It would be a good problem to have too many bus drivers.”
Ehrman also noted that the changes were being presented as a proposal only and that they would take time to be put into action, as many variables need to be considered before implementing such a significant overhaul.
Board members also said that they wanted to take time to explore questions they have about the proposed changes and possibly discuss the matter in committee before giving their approval.