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Busy times for school-bus route planners


The walls of Dwight Stull's office are covered with maps. The maps are covered with clear plastic, and the clear plastic is covered with crayoned lines showing the bus routes that will take thousands of Howard County students to school each day.

Rolled-up maps jumbled in a corner show the boundaries separating students who walk to school from the ones who take the bus. A plaque above an overflowing table says, "A clean, uncluttered desk is the sign of a sick mind."

"I'd like to have two or three days to clean it up, but I never seem to get around to it," said Stull, looking around his office.

With the first day of school a week away, it's a busy time of year for Stull, who works for the school transportation department in cubicle-divided offices on the lower level of the county Board of Education building. He's one of six staffers who plan the bus routes - two handle special education needs, while Stull and three others divide up the rest of the county.

"A lot of times I'll be here from 7:30 to 6, with maybe one weekend day along the way. Pretty much for half the summer I do that," said Stull, sitting in front of a computer that showed maps of school districts, with red dots for houses with incoming kindergartners and green dots for houses with older kids.

Glenn Johnson, director of transportation, said planning the school bus routes begins in April, when children register for kindergarten classes. But changes continue through the summer and into the first weeks of school, as families who moved over the summer get around to registering in their school districts.

Caffeine is important.

"We keep the Coke machines and the coffee machines running," Johnson said, noting that some of the staff works 12-hour days to make sure all the bus routes are in place for the first day of school.

As hectic as things are now, the first day of school is worse, said Stull, who has held the job for 20 years. He will typically get 75 calls that first day, from parents, school officials and bus drivers, commenting on everything from a bus that's a few minutes late to ones that are overcrowded.

School buses are designed to seat 66, but the transportation department tries to keep the number between 45 for high school students and 53 for elementary kids, Johnson said. Because the bus routes are based on home addresses, the numbers can change if parents drop their children with a caregiver in the morning, and that person puts the child on the bus.

Johnson highlighted two changes that are adding to his challenge this year. The new high school, Marriotts Ridge, is taking only ninth- and 10th-graders, while 11th- and 12th-graders will continue at their old schools. That means two buses will pick up high school kids in many neighborhoods, taking some to the old school and some to the new one.

Also new this year, Johnson said, each public school in the county will get a large laminated map clearly showing the boundaries dividing walkers and bus-riders. The basic rule is that students living within a mile of the school are not eligible for public transportation, but busy roads and other factors can change the formula.

Johnson and his staff walked the routes from school to the houses in question, using a walking wheel that measured the distance.

"We actually walk like a child would walk to school," he said.

The transportation department then created maps clearly showing which houses are eligible for bus transportation. In the past, a school administrator had to look up the address on a list, Johnson said.

"This is something we've been wanting to do for a long time," he said.

The school buses in Howard County are all owned and operated by contractors, who must be approved and trained. Some of the bus companies are as small as a single owner-driver, while other companies operate as many as 50 buses.

This year, 303 buses will be sent on 983 routes, with many buses running two or three routes a day. About 550 drivers, allowing for substitutes, will be given in-service training.

In addition, 107 buses will transport about 1,400 special-needs children to whatever programs they need.

Some of those students are taken as far away as the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Johnson said. The department is also responsible for Howard County students who attend residential facilities in other states. It will arrange for the student to be flown to the facility and then organize four trips back and forth each year, Johnson said.

Once the bus routes are tweaked, the department moves on to other challenges.

Bus inspections and bus-driver training are high on the priority list, and soon enough, it will be snowing.

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