New position, technology to help with Groton school bus costs

Brock Schultz successfully turns his head at the last second to miss banging into a bus retractable stop sign as he and fellow students depart school in Groton on the first day on Aug. 29, 2012. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Brock Schultz successfully turns his head at the last second to miss banging into a bus retractable stop sign as he and fellow students depart school in Groton on the first day on Aug. 29, 2012. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Groton — To increase transportation efficiency and reduce the number of buses, the school district has hired an assistant transportation coordinator and is implementing the bus routing software it purchased last year.

The moves were recommended in a transportation analysis of Groton Public Schools that Futures Education issued last month, at a cost of $10,000 to the district.

The salary for the new assistant transportation coordinator — Jenny Aquino, who previously worked for Student Transportation of America — is in the low- to mid-$40,000 range, Superintendent Michael Graner said. Aquino will be working alongside transportation coordinator Patti Gomez.

Graner has been confident the investments will pay off in savings. For this school year, the district is reducing the number of full-size buses from 48 to 46, with each bus costing $58,000 a year to operate.

"We're using the software right now to be sure we're using the buses as efficiently as possible, and I think they don't want to over-promise," Graner said. "So we know two off the top, potentially more, and certainly if not this year, next year another bus or two."

The bus schedules and routes for this school year will be posted online next week, Graner said.

The Board of Education approved the transportation recommendations at its July 17 meeting, with only Rita Volkmann voting against them.

"It is a significant savings, and I was hoping that we could have all those savings put toward something else rather than an assistant transportation person," she said at the time.

But Graner did not feel that the position could be done part-time, or that someone in the central office working in technology could assume the responsibilities of the routing software, called Transfinder.

The software, according to its website, allows users to generate alternate routes by fastest time or shortest distance, and to incorporate real-time GPS data.

Graner feels it will be beneficial to have an additional person at the computer and talking to parents on the phone, considering Gomez is sometimes out of the office and covering for bus aides.

School board Chairwoman Kim Shepardson Watson commented, "With having just one person in our department, if that person wasn't available for that day or if something happened, there's only one person handling a network of transportation of children, so that kind of struck me as: We could be a moment away from a disaster."

The board members also considered transportation changes stemming from the closure of Pleasant Valley Elementary, and the impact of the transition of the middle schools to magnet schools in the coming years.

The 43-page report from Futures Education noted that the district provides transportation for Groton students attending magnet schools outside of the district, which it is not legally required to do.

Groton spends significantly less per bus per day than other Connecticut school districts with similar demographics, the report stated. But it spends 6.5 percent of its budget on transportation while the industry standard is 5 percent.

The report listed the 2015-16 transportation expenditure as $4.95 million.

The analysis also expressed that the transportation department is understaffed compared with districts of similar size and demographics.

According to the report, the average route time for nonspecialized transportation is 32 minutes, most routes operate in less time than is available, and many routes have more than one stop within 2-3 minutes.

It stated, "Elimination of many of these stops and increased walking distances would lead to more efficient loading. Based upon our analysis of loading and scheduling, in addition to eliminating all non-required transportation, it appears that utilizing a more robust routing software could reconfigure and effectively eliminate 3 buses, saving approximately $177,843."

The transportation coordinator in Groton has been developing routes by hand, but the report stated that national studies have found computer-generated routes to be 32 percent more efficient and cost-effective.

While the analysis cited the coordinator for being "highly skilled and dedicated," it said she has lacked the time and training to utilize Transfinder.

e.moser@theday.com

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