In the mostly rural Solanco School District, a fleet of buses travels nearly 6,000 miles each day getting students to class on time and back home again.
“It’s like our buses travel from Quarryville to Los Angeles, Los Angeles back to Quarryville — and then to Indianapolis,” says Matt Kirchoff, Solanco’s transportation coordinator.
In the daily miracle that is the average public school day, parents shuffle their children out the door before daybreak, teachers prepare the day’s lesson plan and grade stacks of pop quizzes, and the cafeteria cooks up thousands of warm lunches.
But the most fundamental part of that day — the safe transport of tens of thousands of students to schools across Lancaster County — is often overlooked. And it is a Herculean task requiring lots of coordination among staff, drivers and parents, not to mention tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
The 16 school districts here will spend nearly $44 million on transportation this school year, according to budget documents. That cost covers busing students to and from school, but not to sporting events and extracurricular activities.
“To get students to school on time ... it’s a challenge,” said Kirchoff, whose mission is getting 3,700 Solanco students to school in the nearly 190-square-mile district. The district has a transportation line that's $3.3 million or 5.7 percent of its total budget.
How it works
Transportation schedules are each district’s responsibility, but the state Department of Education sets guidelines. Busing must be offered to students in kindergarten through second grade who live more than a mile from their school, according to the Pennsylvania Public School Code of 1949.
The distance increase to two miles for students in seventh through 12th grades.When Columbia School District students climbed the hill to their school to start the year, there were hardly any buses in sight.
The majority of its students walk, with a few carpoolers and student drivers, according to director of operations Tom Strickler. Buses run only to take students to career schools or to bring special education students to the school, Strickler said.
The budget at the district is by far the smallest in the county at $570,000, or about 2 percent of its total budget.
Another part of state law allows a student at any age to walk up to a 1 ½ miles to a bus stop. Solanco tries to keep that distance shorter.
“No one walks more than a mile to a bus stop, and we try to keep it that way,” spokesman Keith Kaufman said.
Most of the students take the bus, he said, with the exception of Quarryville Elementary, where some borough students choose to walk.
State law also makes modifications for walking routes that include “hazardous roadways.” A roadway can be deemed hazardous if it meets a number of criteria including the history of pedestrian incidents, the number of vehicles that use the road, the presence of a railroad crossing and the lack of sidewalk.
On the bus
As Lampeter-Strasburg students climbed the steps of their school bus with first-day excitement last week, they were following a plan set in motion months before.
Every day this year, middle and high school students should arrive at 7:20 a.m. and elementary students by 8:50 a.m., according a plan made by transportation coordinator Jeffrey Landis.
“Busing is an aspect of the school day that can often be overlooked,” Landis said.
Getting students to and from school safely and on time this year will be an over $1.5 million expense or close to 3 percent of the L-S’s 2017-18 budget.
In addition to making the transportation plan, Landis drives a bus route of his own.
“I don’t expect our bus drivers to do anything that I’m not also doing daily,” he said.
Landis uses EDULOG, an online pupil transportation software, to plan routes.
And the carefully calculated routes that take students to school from the district’s 38-square-mile span started halfway through last year, he said.
“This pre-planning can help avoid headaches as late summer approaches,” he said.
There's a number of challenges he faces while planning routes and stops.
A more recent challenge is motorists becoming more distracted by technology in their cars, he said.
“Some motorists simply do not pay attention or are in a hurry and don’t want to be delayed by our buses,” he said.
If Landis were to give advice to parents, he would ask them to register their children as early as possible with their district to make busing arrangements better and avoid last-minute changes.