Transportation officials with Howard County public schools revealed plans Thursday to maximize school bus efficiency, using a mathematical modeling program developed by University of Maryland students to determine the best bus routes should schools start and dismissal times change in the coming year.
Last week, the Board of Education motioned to delay any changes to start and dismissal times until at least the 2018-19 school year to give administrators, staff and parents time to prepare for schedule adjustments.
While any potential changes to the start and dismissal times will not be implemented next year, school system director of transportation David Ramsay said transportation is a major factor in the decision-making process. Alternative start and dismissal times could not only increase the number of general and specialized bus fleets needed, but also increase overall costs.
"Transportation has, historically, been the area in which there are cost implications with adjusting bell times," Ramsay said. "The tools that we had weren't sufficient to the degree that we were happy with to really analyze this problem."
Howard schools have 453 buses that travel more than 30,000 miles every day with up to 40,000 students, he said. In ongoing efforts to find effective routes for each bus, the director said the school system contacted the University of Maryland, College Park to present their problem to students in the QUEST Honors program, where undergraduates create and design projects.
Students of the A. James Clark School of Engineering agreed to work on a solution over the summer semester in 2015. Ramsay said five students were involved in the project and sought the assistance of Ali Haghani, a professor at the university's civil and environmental engineering department.
Haghani, a Fulton resident, said the tool uses a mathematical optimization model that can minimize or maximize a particular function. In this case, he said, the goal was to minimize the total number of buses as well as the deadhead time, the time when buses are running without any students onboard.
"A solution that is 1 percent worse can lead to three or four more buses," Haghani said.
Using data provided by the school system, Haghani said students used the bus start and end times, location and order of stops and the deadhead distance in the program.
"The optimization model tries to match up these routes together in a way that as many routes as possible are served by one bus," he said. "We had a working model in about a month, but when we ran it, it took a long time."
Five months later, Haghani said, results for each given scenario were available in under a minute.
While Haghani said the model was free-of-charge to the school system, Ramsay added that the school system paid $5,000 toward the QUEST program's involvement and an additional $24,800 for consultation with Haghani. Other vendor price quotes for developing a model had exceeded $50,000, Ramsay said.
Once the school board makes a decision on school start and dismissal times, Ramsay said they will give Haghani a spreadsheet outlining the proposal to calculate the most efficient bus routes for the county's elementary, middle and high schools.
Schools superintendent Renee Foose, who also attended Thursday's unveiling, said Howard County is the first school system to collaborate with the University of Maryland, College Park's engineering department to address optimal bus routes.
"These are some very real-world challenges for school systems around the nation," Foose said. "Changes to school start and dismissal times will affect our entire Howard County community. … Our buses use the same roads as all rush hour commuters and additional buses would require much more additional funding."
The school system began a five-phase process to review changes in 2013. A year later, Foose established the Start and Dismissal Time Committee to review impacts, including sleep schedules of children and teens, starting times in other Maryland jurisdictions, and scheduling of before- and after-school events and child care.
In November, the committee revealed four model proposals to the board, which would send elementary school students to school earlier in the day, with middle and high school students having later starting times.
Howard elementary schools currently start their days at 8:15 and 9:25 a.m.; however, proposed models suggest starting elementary schools between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m., and ending the day between 2:15 and 3 p.m.
Middle and high schools suggested start times were between 8:30 and 9:15 a.m. and dismissal between 3:15 and 4 p.m. Howard high schools' current schedules are from 7:25 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., with middle schools currently starting between 7:40 a.m. and 8:25 a.m. and dismissing between 2:25 and 3:10 p.m.
During a school board meeting Jan. 12, Frank Eastham, executive director of school administration and improvement, said the committee was in the fourth phase of the process, gathering administration and community feedback in four regional public forums and an online forum.
While a majority, 68 percent, of public forum voters preferred the current model, Eastham said that 14 percent voted for another model. The online forum garnered over 10,000 participants — which included 7,390 parents, roughly 3,400 staff, 865 students and 283 community members — with 61 percent in favor of keeping the current schedule and 39 percent wanting a change.
The school board later voted to delay any effective changes to the 2018-19 school year.
"This is an enormous undertaking and it has to be comprehensive and include all the aspects of the community," school board member Cindy Vaillancourt said. "I just don't think we'd be able to do the kind of job that needs to be done to make arrangements."
School board member Christina Delmont-Small agreed, noting the "large budgetary impact of making a decision."
"I think, no matter how optimistic we would want to be, from what I have been hearing from the community, I don't think we're at a point where we can make a decision that will impact the '17/'18 school year, which also corresponds to the fiscal year 2018 operating year," Delmont-Small said.
The board will hold a public hearing Feb. 7 at 7 p.m., with board action on school start times expected at its Feb. 23 meeting.