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School Districts Optimize Bus Routes To Save Money In Wake Of More Funding Cuts

Patrick Clark, Licking Heights School District driver
Dan Konik
Patrick Clark, Licking Heights School District driver

In most of Ohio, the kids are back in school, and more than 800,000 of them ride buses to class each day. Figuring out the most efficient and most cost-effective way to do that is a complex equation. And it’s become more important now with student transportation taking a big hit in the new state budget. 

“Woke up one day and decided I wanted to do what I always wanted to do be happy and drive a school bus.”

Patrick Clark is working his dream job after spending most of his life in retail.

“You get to know the kids, you get to know the parents and you almost become part of the family.”

Clark has been driving students in the Licking Heights School District in central Ohio for seven years. He says his responsibility goes beyond simply taking students to and from school.

“When you get to that point and you’re walking through the store and you have a 25-year-old walk up to you and give you a big hug because he had such a good experience on your bus, you know you’ve done something right.”

A good bussing experience for Clark and his students on the road starts with Darlene Mortine, the district’s transportation supervisor.

A big part of Mortine’s job is to draw the bus routes to make sure they’re as quick and efficient as possible.

“Basically when I build the routes I look at logistics, I look at miles, how many miles, I look at time and my busload,” Mortine said.

Let’s stop here and talk about why efficient routes are important.

The state has been cutting more and more funding from school transportation for several years now. It started in 2009 when Ohio said it would no longer pick up the bill for new busses. For this school year lawmakers cut $56 million out of school transportation. Next year another $19 million will be cut. So districts need to get creative, finding new ways to pinch pennies by creating faster, more effective routes.

That’s where Pete Japikse comes in. He’s a transportation consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association who’s been routing busses for decades. Japikse says the process has come a long way.

“In the 80’s this was manually generated we would actually take a push pin on the cork board that had the map on it and then we would wrap strings around it,” Japikse said.

But now there’s computer software that does a lot of the leg work.

“What the software does for us is, how many children are on the bus, how many minutes have you used and at some point it’ll say you’re done and then we’ll route that bus to the school.”

School districts will call Japikse and get his advice on how to optimize their routes so they can save money. He says most districts can buy software for about $10,000 and that does most of the work.

“The software is very powerful, it’s a great tool but it’s not the solution as a standalone source.”

That’s because there’s still a need for a human component. Someone who knows the neighborhood and knows things like which intersection can be troublesome and where it’s best to turn right instead of left.

“So really the best solution for schools today is a person who knows the district, who understands the business, who can use the computer software tool to write routes and then put it all together in a great package.”

Putting those two components together can go a long way for any school district which spends an average of about $50,000 a year for each bus route.

In the end, Clark says it all goes back to that one-on-one connection with students to make sure they start their school day on the right foot.

“In the mornings when I dismiss I say have a good morning, make good choices.”

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.