Fully staffed with drivers, CMS seeks smooth start

The first day of classes usually brings transportation headaches for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Buses run late. Parents complain. Schools scramble to make it right.

This year, CMS has retooled bus stops all over the county, trying to cut driving time and save gas money. But that means some kids will be walking several blocks to catch the bus rather than being picked up near their front doors.

A disaster in the making?

Not necessarily, school officials said Wednesday.

They said drivers have been hired for all of CMS's more than 1,200 bus routes, a rare feat they hope will make Monday's first day of classes smoother – even with far-reaching bus stop changes. Last year, driver vacancies disrupted schools and family schedules for weeks.

“Thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of people, we are in good shape,” Superintendent Peter Gorman said at a news conference.

They're not guaranteeing every bus route will perform flawlessly. Gorman called the CMS transportation operation “the biggest taxi service in Mecklenburg County.” With buses carrying more than 111,000 students across 135,000 miles each day, glitches are bound to crop up.

“Our dry runs are going extremely well,” transportation director Carol Stamper said. “We are not hearing a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction – yet.”

The new bus stops might be the most far-reaching change affecting families this school year. Trying to save on fuel costs, the school system has trimmed the number of bus stops from about 40,000 last school year to about 37,000.

It won't be clear for another month or so how much money CMS will save; that's when officials will be able to compare their first quarter costs to this year's first-quarter costs.

Citing security reasons, CMS declined to release a list of its bus stops. So for now it's impossible to say how safe and convenient they are. This is clear: Walks to bus stops for kids will be longer – up to four-tenths of a mile for middle and high school students; half that distance for elementary kids.

Many families should have received their bus assignments and schedules in the mail. So far, CMS hasn't seen a spike in calls from concerned parents. Kiesha McGaughy, who lives off Sugar Creek Road north of uptown, said the bus picked her daughter up at the end of her driveway last year. Now, the stop is two blocks away.

“I went and drove to see where it was,” she said. “It was just out of the subdivision and right up the sidewalk. It wasn't too bad.”

Gorman thinks he knows why the changes haven't sparked much outcry.

“What we've done is reasonable,” he said. “I think people also understand the economic outlook we are facing, as well.”