While the West Geauga Board of Education still needs to vote to confirm its willingness to move forward with a proposed territory transfer with Newbury Local Schools, school officials are completing their due diligence on how the consolidation would impact the district.

West G’s board is expected to vote on a resolution directing the Geauga County Educational Service Center to move forward with the territory transfer at its June 24 meeting. At the regular meeting Monday, Director of Technology and Operations Sean Whelan updated the board on how the territory transfer would affect the district’s transportation needs, including bus fleets, vans, routes and ride times.

Mr. Whelan began by giving an overview of the two district’s current transportation statistics. West Geauga served 859 students across its 47 square miles with 19 buses and 4 vans in the 2018-19 school year, while Newbury served 358 students across its 29 square miles with 10 buses and 2 vans. He noted that both districts bus public, nonpublic, community school and special needs students, and even though it is not required by law, both districts bus students who live less than 1 mile from their school building due to the lack of sidewalks in the communities.

When building potential transportation plans for the 2020-21 school year when Newbury would become a part of West G if the territory transfer goes through, Mr. Whelan said considerations will include a board mandate that ride times not exceed 60 minutes one way and reviewing and developing standard procedures district-wide for preschoolers and students with Individualized Education Programs known as IEPs.

“If we’re going to continue transferring the preschool students like we currently are, are car seats or safety vests required? Are booster seats needed?” Mr. Whelan asked. “So these are questions that we don’t have answered now but we’re going to have to take a look at moving forward.”

Treasurer Karen Penler noted the district currently transports preschoolers and has car seats and booster seats available, and Mr. Whelan confirmed the district would be making sure practices for preschool and special needs students were standardized.

Mr. Whelan said retired Ohio Department of Education Director of Pupil Transportation Bob Harmon assisted the district in determining the number of buses and vans the district would need. It was determined that the 76 square mile West Geauga district beginning in 2020-2021 would need 32 buses, four spare buses and three vans to service students, with approximately 39 students per bus using double tiered routing to fulfill the 60 minute or less ride time mandate, Mr. Whelan said.

“In order to accommodate this, there might need to be slight bell time modifications and a standard start for elementary buildings in the 20-21 school year,” Mr. Whelan said. “If we had to do this today, we actually have enough buses to do this.”

The estimate of three vans could vary depending on fluctuations of how many students with IEPs would require van transportation, a number that changes each year, Mr. Whelan said. Moving forward, he said the first steps will include a continuation of reviewing both districts’ bus fleets and IEPs to determine how many replacement or new vehicles will be needed past the 2020-21 school year.

If the board were to move forward with consolidation, Mr. Whelan said the district would need to re-register Newbury’s vehicles as West Geauga vehicles and begin “scratch” routing with the best available ridership data by March 2020. He said research indicated the district will also need to update its routing software as part of the transition.

“The company we’re currently using right now provides a software package that’s out of date and has some inconsistency questions as far as actual routing data, so actually working with Bob Harmon we have some recommendations and companies that we’ve already reached out to to update our software to a much more feature rich program that is known to be more accurate than what we are currently using,” Mr. Whelan said.

Board Vice President Bill Beers asked what it would take if the board decided to reduce its mandated maximum ride time even shorter to 45 minutes. Mr. Harmon said the primary way to reduce ride time is to add more buses to the fleet, but noted new buses cost an average of $89,000 per bus.

“We find that most districts don’t want to spend $89,000 to shorten the ride time, and again, 60 minutes is not unreasonable,” he said. “There are districts in the state that have 2 hours and 34 minutes one way, so 60 minutes is very common throughout the state.”

Board member Chet Ramey asked Mr. Harmon for a gut feeling of how many more buses would be needed to reduce the ride time to 45 minutes.

“My gut tells me you would need to go to adjusting of bell times, go to triple tier routes, using the same number of buses, 32, but what would fluctuate would be the start and ending times of your buildings because your bus would be making three trips a day instead of two,” Mr. Harmon said.

Transportation Supervisor Cheryl Fowler said the longest ride time in the district is currently 60 minutes, with an average of 45-55 minutes. Board President Ben Kotowski asked if more cluster stops picking up multiple students could be implemented but noted that the district’s lack of sidewalks makes group stops more difficult.

“We do have some cluster stops now, and it all works out until you get to wintertime and parents are complaining about the snow plows, but I do have some now,” Ms. Fowler said. “There’s private roads here and we’re not allowed to go down them, so those kids do come up to the corner.”

Tim Tedeschi covers the Solon and West Geauga Board of Education, as well as statewide education issues, sports and features. He is a lifelong diehard Cleveland Indians fan and a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University.

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