USD 475 officials consider additional transportation services for students

USD 475 school board members Sarah Talley (left) and Rina D. Neal discuss student transportation services during this week's meeting.

Many local students are in need of additional transportation services to help them attend school events, and officials recently discussed the possibility of partnering with a local bus service.

Unified School District 475 Chief Operating Officer David Wild presented a plan for a possible contract between Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency (ATA Bus) and the district to board members this week. The contract would allow for a pilot program to run from January to Dec. 31, 2019.

“As we build a new high school on the western side of town, there’s going to be some transportation challenges,” Wild said. “There’s already some transportation challenges for our student population.”

Parents of students who do not currently qualify for bus services have recently voiced transportation-related concerns to board members. The proposed pilot program would make services available to students who reside within a 2.5-mile radius of USD 475 schools where bus services are not currently available. Secondary students (in middle school or high school) would be provided with scheduled or on-demand ATA Bus services, and would ride for free on any school day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Board Vice President Dr. Anwar Khoury voiced concerns with the initiative, however, and said challenges could arise from large numbers of students requesting services at the same time, with all of them wanting to be driven to different locations.

“The intention is great,” Khoury said. “But it, logistically, does not make any sense. I have a better idea for you. I think we should use Uber. There’s a lot of Uber cars around here, and you can reimburse them. ATA Bus has their own routes. They’re not going to quit their own routes to come in and just take one student. And if you have 30 students, it’s impossible to get everyone, from whenever they get out of high school, to get to their house.”

Board President Tom Brungardt said Uber might not be an ideal option, however.

“The Uber driver gets called and they pick up one person,” Brungardt said. “And they go and make their route, and then they’re free to go and pick up somebody else. But they aren’t like ATA Bus, who can go and pick up a lot of people.”

Board member Rina D. Neal said she was in favor of trying the pilot program.

“I would say this is something we need to get information on now,” Neal said. “When we build this new high school, we have said we will make every effort to provide equities for those students that don’t have access to transportation. They have internships, they have jobs, they need to go to a doctor’s appointment and so forth. So, while we don’t have all the information at hand, I would say we probably don’t have the funds to incur costs of new vehicles. Those buses are not cheap. I believe we need to get the data and we need to begin now.”

Junction City High School Principal Melissa Sharp spoke about the need for additional transportation services.

“We have 55 student interns going on right now at the high school,” Sharp said. “Many students will say they don’t sign up for an internship because they don’t have their own transportation. So, we looked at this as a way for students to be able to have access to do those things in our community. We have students who don’t take classes at (Cloud County Community College) throughout the day because they don’t have their own transportation.”

Sharp said she has been working with ATA Bus for a year-and-a-half, and that ATA Bus drivers currently help with student transportation services when requested. ATA Bus recently provided transportation for students who participated in the Turkey Tutoring session that was held during Thanksgiving break, Sharp said.

“We called ATA Bus and (asked) ‘Would you be willing to help some students get there who don’t have their own transportation?’ and they provided on-demand service,” Sharp said. “They’re on campus every day for students who are in vocational experiences. They’ve been very supportive. They want to build new routes, out to the west side of town to include the middle school and the high school, when that happens. I think it’s a good thing for kids who don’t have access to things we offer.”

Board members did not take any action on the proposal, and agreed to place it on a future agenda. Officials will gather additional input on various aspects of the initiative, and requested that a survey be distributed to parents to gather their input.

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