Walk to bus stops growing

Charlotte-Mecklenburg students will walk farther to their bus stops in August, as high fuel costs prod district leaders to revamp the school transportation system.

Last year, most students were picked up and dropped off less than one-tenth of a mile from their homes. The district's 1,241 buses made about 41,000 stops a day.

In 2008-09, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to make elementary students walk about two-tenths of a mile, while stops for middle- and high-school runs will be about four-tenths of a mile from homes. CMS will also experiment with more “common stops” for new subdivisions, making all students come to a clubhouse or other safe stop for large numbers of students.

CMS is still working out routes; students will get assignments in mid-August. But so far there are about 3,800 fewer stops planned, even while CMS plans to add at least 20 buses and 3,500 students (not all will ride buses).

By stopping less often and snaking through fewer side streets, buses should burn a little less fuel, officials said Wednesday. Deputy Superintendent Maurice Green said CMS was paying $2.23 a gallon for diesel when school opened in 2007-08 and $4.09 by the last day.

“Given our recent history, we're concerned about fuel prices continuing to escalate,” he said.

CMS leaders have been talking for months about ways to cut ride times and fuel costs. In earlier meetings, school board members warned that parents will complain if their kids have to walk farther. Some live in dangerous neighborhoods and want to be able to keep an eye on their kids from home.

“When you talk to Mama, there's a child molester, there's a rabid dog, there are speeders – you hear every reason in the world why that child shouldn't walk a block,” board chair Joe White said in November.

Another change will hit families who move during the school year: Students can still finish the year at their old neighborhood school, but if the family moves into a new zone the parents will have to get their kids to school. Before, CMS provided bus rides.

Transportation director Carol Stamper said she doubts the district will save money; the goal is just to offset some of the rising costs. “We're trying to stay within this budget that we will be given.”

The state pays for fuel, and the legislature has yet to approve a 2008-09 budget. Early drafts of the budget have fallen far short of diesel costs.

More extensive busing changes linked to magnet schools would not come until 2009-10, if then. The school board continues to study magnets, with plans to vote on changes this fall.

Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain, who oversees busing, said his staff is also looking at more sweeping changes for 2009-10. The goal is fewer stops with more students at each one.