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CMS pares back its bus fleet and prepares families for express plan

Signs like this one at South Mecklenburg High will direct parents to new express bus stops in August.
Ann Doss Helms
Signs like this one at South Mecklenburg High will direct parents to new express bus stops in August.

Families of about 5,200 magnet students will get details about new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools express stops in the next few days, as the district gears up to run a bus fleet that’s down about 10% over last year.

CMS plans to run 840 buses when classes begin Aug. 28 — down from 945 as the past school year began and almost 1,100 before the coronavirus pandemic. The scale-back comes partly because enrollment has declined from its peak in 2018, but mostly because CMS can’t find enough drivers to put more buses on the road. That’s why students attending a dozen magnet high schools will now have to get to stops that may be a few miles from home.

By the end of last year, Transportation Director Adam Johnson said CMS had 925 buses assigned to routes, but vacancies, absences and leaves meant up to 100 a day went unstaffed.

“Parents certainly felt that impact: Late buses in the morning, late buses in the afternoon, drivers running double runs, triple runs, just to make sure the kids could get to and from school,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.

Johnson said the new plan is more realistic and will save the district money on fuel, maintenance and salaries. But he acknowledged it’s creating stress and confusion for families who say they can’t get their kids to and from the distant stops.

“That’s why we’re giving them their stop information a few weeks ahead of time, so we can try to help you,” he said. “There might be some other ideas or some other stops that we haven’t explored that could possibly help those families.”

Map of CMS express bus stops.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Map of CMS express bus stops.

CMS has designated 40 schools as express stops. CMS will have security stationed there and signs to direct parents. In the morning, the express students will be picked up from bus lots at those schools before the regular students arrive. That means early pick-ups, Johnson said, but magnet students riding long distances on buses that made more stops were already boarding early.

“What we’ll have is most likely a student that was getting on the bus at 5:15, 5:30 in the morning, they’ll be getting on the bus around 6:15 or 6:30,” he said. “So it’s about an hour’s savings, extra sleep that they have, families can kind of get ready for the day.”

In addition, CMS has asked families to consider streamlining their kids’ rides by creating consolidated stops, where seven or more students agree to catch the bus at a neighborhood clubhouse or nearby parking lot. Those stops won’t have CMS security.

The express bus plan went public in December. Ever since, parents and even some board members have worried that students whose parents don’t have flexible hours and a way to get their kids to express stops will lose access to such specialized programs as arts, International Baccalaureate and world languages.

Some have predicted that enrollment will decline at some or all of the magnets using express buses. Officials say that won’t be clear until CMS takes its enrollment snapshot in September.

Meanwhile, CMS is still trying to hire 51 more drivers by the start of school. The district is offering a $1,500 signing bonus for drivers and $3,000 for bus technicians. Find job information here.

Johnson says his staff will work with families to lock in the most convenient drop-off and pick-up stops. Most will have about a month after they get their bus information in the mail. But students in the new Central Piedmont Community College early college high school start classes Aug. 7, and those at UNC Charlotte’s early college high school start Aug. 9. Both are part of the express bus program.

Details about express buses are available here, and families can call 980-343-6715 with questions.

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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.