Monday, September 17, 2012
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Roanoke County schools don't keep track of who rides bus

Informal counts at two elementary schools indicate as many as one in four students don't arrive by bus.

Ethel Ward, instructional assistant at Burlington Elementary School, helps unload students from cars at a drop-off point near the school's entrance. Many Roanoke County children ride to schools in cars instead of the buses. But the school division doesn't keep track of how many use the buses.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Ethel Ward, instructional assistant at Burlington Elementary School, helps unload students from cars at a drop-off point near the school's entrance. Many Roanoke County children ride to schools in cars instead of the buses. But the school division doesn't keep track of how many use the buses.

Crystal Plunkett, a substitute at Burlington Elementary School, helps unload a student from a car drop-off point near the school's entrance. The school division plans bus routes assuming that every student will ride.

Crystal Plunkett, a substitute at Burlington Elementary School, helps unload a student from a car drop-off point near the school's entrance. The school division plans bus routes assuming that every student will ride.

Lisa Penn pulled in to a parking spot at Burlington Elementary School one recent morning. She then carried the family's chocolate toy poodle in her arms as she walked her daughters to the school's door.

Penn drives her daughters Mia, a kindergartner, and Madison, who's in second grade, to school every morning. The family recently relocated from Florida, where bus service was not offered because the Penns lived within a 2-mile radius of the school.

"This is the first year they rode the bus. I let them ride in the afternoon," Penn explained.

It's a school morning ritual from August to June -- a long line of cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles waiting to drop off students in front of Roanoke County schools.

The county school system doesn't keep data on the number of students who ride buses or arrive with parents.

"We route based on every student riding the buses," explained Marty Misicko, the division's director of operations.

But informal counts of cars dropping students off at Burlington and Cave Spring elementary schools in recent weeks compared with the schools' enrollments indicate that as many as one in four or one in five students arrive by vehicles other than the division's buses.

"I think if every kid rode, the buses would be overcrowded," Misicko said.

The county schools maintain a fleet of about 175 buses. The transportation budget for this fiscal year is about $1.8 million, which represents about 1.3 percent of the division's total operating budget.

A software program is used to route stops efficiently. The goal is fewer stops and farther between, which saves gas, time and wages the division has to pay, according to Misicko.

About 80 vehicles, including vans from three day care centers, dropped off students at Burlington on Thursday morning. Principal Amy Shank said she counted 104 cars in the line one morning last school year at the north county school.

"We often encourage parents to put children on the buses, but many parents prefer to bring them and pick them up," Shank said.

The reasons vary from convenience for working parents to shared custody agreements in which one parent lives outside the school's attendance zone. Two mothers in the Burlington car line said they took their children off the buses after incidents involving bullying.

About 90 cars dropped students off at Cave Spring Elementary School on the morning of Aug. 28. At times, a line of vehicles stretched the length of the southwest county school's long driveway from Ranchcrest Drive.

"Historically, there is an increased number of car riders on rainy days and cold mornings," said Jodi Poff, principal at Cave Spring Elementary.

Cars begin lining up there about 7:15 a.m. even though students cannot go inside until 7:30 a.m.

Every other week, James Rogers is usually at the front of the line in his company truck. Rogers, who shares custody of his son Conner on a week-to-week basis, drives his son because Rogers' home is outside the school's attendance boundaries.

Rogers, the owner of a painting company, tries to be first in the car rider line so he can go straight to work when Conner gets out of the truck.

Conner, 10, said he wakes up about the same time whether he rides with his dad or catches the bus from his mom's house. Conner did not seem especially enthusiastic about spending those extra 15 minutes waiting in the truck with his dad.

"I like to sleep," the fifth-grader said.

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