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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools survive DNC without major bus woes

Students got to and from school last week with no serious problems

CHARLOTTE, N.C. One of North Carolina’s two megadistricts had a busing meltdown during the first two weeks of school – and it wasn’t the one that had the Secret Service blocking streets.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools families and officials let out a collective sigh of relief this week, after almost 123,000 bus-riders got to and from school without major delays or incidents caused by last week’s Democratic National Convention.

Meanwhile, Wake County Schools, the state’s largest district, suffered through what The News & Observer called “a logistical nightmare of late, overfilled or missing buses” that continued through the second week of school, apparently fueled by budget cuts and planning breakdowns.

CMS began planning last spring for ways to work around the uptown convention, long before officials knew exactly which streets would be closed.

School began Aug. 27, and by the end of that week, 98 percent of CMS buses were reaching schools before the opening bell rang, said Transportation Director Carol Stamper. That rate didn’t change when school resumed after Labor Day with the DNC in full swing, she said.

“The story there is how advanced planning pays off,” said Derek Graham, transportation director for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “It was pretty impressive.”

Stamper, who has been CMS transportation director for 20 years, was at the steering wheel of the massive planning efforts. She and her staff drew up at least eight options for working around uptown congestion and ended up using parts of all of them, said Jody Pressley, who helps CMS and other districts with bus-routing software through the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

“They have a super team there that knows the streets of Charlotte like the back of their hand,” Pressley said.

In late August, the CMS team found out roads in the southern Ballantyne area would also be closed last week because the president and his family were staying there.

All told, CMS ended up temporarily rerouting 325 of its 954 buses, Stamper said.

“I really didn’t experience anything out of the norm of being the second week of school,” said Fran McDermott, PTO president for Community House Middle School in Ballantyne. “Our buses continue to run a little late in the afternoon, but absolutely nothing major.”

Like Wake, CMS has faced cuts to its transportation budget in recent years. The News & Observer of Raleigh reports that Wake has more than 75,000 riders and a budget of $66.4 million, $1.6 million less than it had four years ago, with fewer students.

CMS has a 2012-13 transportation budget of $59.2 million, with significantly more riders. In previous years the district has reduced bus service, sending some magnet students to shuttle stops and eliminating door-to-door neighborhood stops in favor of larger clusters.

This year, with no major changes in transportation or student assignment, was an unusually stable year for CMS – except for the DNC. CMS decided to keep its 159 schools open, with early dismissals and other busing accommodations at three schools inside the Interstate 277 loop. The district also assigned special buses to go into the uptown area last week so any delays wouldn’t ripple out to other schools.

Superintendent Heath Morrison said Tuesday the problem-free week vindicated the decision to keep more than 140,000 students in school. He said he visited carpool lines at the schools inside the loop, and everyone seemed satisfied. Kids who rode the bus got a police escort, he noted.

“It made the second week of school a little more exciting,” Morrison said.

Both Morrison and Stamper said they got great cooperation from city, county and convention officials. And Stamper said the district got a break when weather forced the cancellation of Thursday’s big event at Bank of America stadium, which would have brought tens of thousands more people downtown and created much wider traffic problems.

This week, buses that had been rerouted to avoid uptown went back to normal paths, and 4-year-old pre-kindergarteners, who start later than older students, joined the riders.

Stamper said CMS is working on ironing out who’s riding – final ridership tallies are taken the third week of September – and making sure all morning buses arrive at least 10 minutes before the bell.

But she did take a moment to look back on last week with pride.

“We feel like we hit it out of the ballpark,” she told the school board Tuesday.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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