When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools expanded busing options to increase diversity in magnet schools this year, it added almost 10,000 miles a day of bus runs, the equivalent of two round trips to Los Angeles, a report presented Tuesday shows.
The estimated cost of that change, which added neighborhood pickups for students at 15 schools that had previously been served only by shuttle stops, was $6 million going into the year. CMS officials said Tuesday that seems to be close to the actual cost, though the final tally won’t come until the end of the school year.
Meanwhile, CMS had to cut 30 buses from its fleet – from 1,080 to 1,050 – because it couldn’t find enough drivers, the report says. That means “reduced service levels” and tighter schedules that make it more difficult to ensure that students arrive on time, CMS says.
7,200 bus miles per day to serve 15 magnet schools under the shuttle system
17,077 bus miles per day to serve those schools under the new system
9,877 miles per day increase
The new numbers highlight a challenge: While people often use “busing” as shorthand for desegregation, busing for choice is even more complex and costly. And choice is a key to the CMS strategy in coming years, as it tries to diversify all schools and provide new alternatives for thousands of students in low-performing schools.
Some changes already approved, such as a four-year expansion of magnet options and a new opt-out path for students in low-performing schools, are virtually certain to increase demand for transportation. Those costs will be part of the district’s 2017-18 request for county money, and could eat into money available to add teachers, buy technology or provide incoming Superintendent Clayton Wilcox a chance to try new initiatives.
Superintendent Ann Clark and the board see choice as a way to keep students from fleeing CMS for charter and private schools, and to break up concentrations of disadvantaged students without forcing large numbers of students to switch schools. But options without transportation are meaningful only for families with cars and flexible schedules who can give their students a ride.
Transportation for magnets is more complicated than it is for neighborhood schools, which draw from a zone surrounding the school. Magnets draw from a much larger area – sometimes the whole county – and buses may have to drive miles to pick up a few students.
During the recession, when CMS had to make tough choices, the district decided that students who wanted to enroll in 15 magnet schools would have to get to “shuttle stops” located at schools. The bus would then pick up a large group, rather than inching through neighborhoods, and take them directly to the magnets.
330 bus miles per day to serve Northwest School of the Arts under the shuttle system
2,024 bus miles per day to serve Northwest under the new system
1,694 miles per day increase
Some parents loved that system because it meant their kids spent less time on the bus. For other families, it closed the door to some of the most popular specialized programs, from Northwest School of the Arts to Morehead STEM Academy to Berry Academy of Technology.
This year, with an economic recovery underway, CMS offered families a choice of shuttle stops or neighborhood pickup and dropoff. Shuttle stops dropped from 110 last year to 41 this year, while the mileage and ride time for many students increased.
“At five schools, all which are countywide magnets, the average ride time increased by 20 or more minutes,” a CMS response to an Observer query said.
1,150 bus miles per day to serve Harding and Berry high schools under the shuttle system
3,113 bus miles per day to serve those schools under the new system
1,963 miles per day increase
CMS just concluded its first lottery for 2017-18 magnets and other optional assignments; families will be notified of results early in March. The menu of options was larger, but the CMS report says the transportation costs won’t be known until CMS has finished processing applications and placing students.