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CMS says new system for express buses will cut ride times for magnet high schools

School bus.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools unveiled a new plan Tuesday for express buses to some magnet schools. It’s designed to save money, help the district cope with driver shortages and eliminate long rides for students.

For about 5,200 students who attend magnet programs at a dozen high schools, it will mean going up to three miles from home to catch a bus that shoots straight to school. Transportation officials told the school board the maximum ride for those students will drop from almost two hours to about 30 minutes.

For CMS, they say, it will bring unspecified budget savings and reduce the number of drivers needed, at a time when districts around the state face shortages.

The new plan is scheduled to start in August.

The district has already reduced the number of buses on the road to just over 900, down from 1,100 a few years ago. But Nicole Portee, assistant superintendent of operations, said CMS currently has 35 driver vacancies and 39 drivers on leave.

“That is a total of 74 employees that are not (driving) school buses on any given day,” she said. That’s about 8% of buses that need substitutes or other fill-ins — or arrive late because drivers are doubling up.

Transportation director Adam Johnson said the new plan will reduce the number of driver miles required and bring vacancies to zero.

The longest bus rides

CMS offers magnet programs – with transportation – in 71 of its 181 schools. Some of those programs admit students from across Mecklenburg County.

That means students have access to such specialized programs as language immersion, arts, Montessori and International Baccalaureate curriculum. But it also means buses weave their way across 546 square miles, sometimes picking up only one or two students in a neighborhood. And it means magnet students have some of the longest bus rides.

Portee told the board that magnet students account for about 20% of riders but account for one-third of the daily bus miles.

Johnson acknowledged CMS has been trying to streamline magnet busing for years.

“So you’re probably saying, ‘Listen, Adam. You’re just rebranding shuttle stops.’ And that’s not what we’re doing,” he said, adding that the two programs are similar.

CMS launched shuttle stops during the Great Recession and ended that program in 2016. Both programs involve centralized stops for magnet schools, but Johnson said shuttle stops sometimes picked up from several locations and resulted in longer rides for some students. The express plan will offer more stops and take students directly to and from their school, he said. And unlike the shuttle stops, this plan does not affect any elementary school students.

How schools were chosen

The schools slated to offer express busing are:

  • Harding High’s IB program.
  • Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.
  • East Mecklenburg High.
  • Hawthorne Academy.
  • North Mecklenburg High.
  • Northwest School of the Arts.
  • J.T. Williams Montessori.
  • South Mecklenburg High.
  • Early college high schools at UNC Charlotte.
  • E.E. Waddell, which is reopening as a magnet high school in August.
  • PACE Academy, a program for high school students who are learning English, which opens at Waddell in August.
  • A new early college high school opening in August at Central Piedmont Community College’s uptown campus.

For the schools that have attendance zones, only magnet students who live outside the zones will be expected to use express stops.

Portee said the staff focused on high schools with students scattered over large geographic areas, though the program will also apply to middle school students at Northwest and Williams.

Portee and Johnson say the express system will eliminate 1.3 million busing miles per year, improve the rate of on-time arrivals and result in about 2,000 fewer students being picked up before 6 a.m.

Several school board members praised the plan. Member Jennifer De La Jara said reactions are likely to be mixed.

“For some families there is, of course, going to be a greater hardship. And other families may think it’s a blessing if their child’s not on the bus for four hours each day,” she said.

District officials are working now to inform principals and get the word out to families before the 2023 choice lottery starts taking applications next month.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.