Due to a shortage of bus drivers available to maintain current routes, the North Lakeland Elementary school board of education approved consolidating from five bus routes to four.
The consolidation would split half of Route 31, which covered the Manitowish Waters are and one side of Boulder Junction, into Route 32 and the other half into Route 27, which covers Winchester.
“The bus company, I’m sure as you’ve seen, the bus company is trying as hard as they can to find drivers, but they’re having a difficult time finding drivers,” superintendent Brent Jelinski.
Consolidating the routes would not only change the route’s timing for stops, but increase the overall duration of the route.
Changes to Route 27 would put students’ time on the bus at exactly an hour, Jelinski said.
When the board voted to consolidate routes from seven to five approximately 10 years ago, they agreed to limit routes to an hour or less, according to Jelinski.
Since the time restriction on routes isn’t a board policy, Jelinski said they didn’t have to make a policy change.
The change to Route 27 would cover downtown Manitowish Waters before heading back toward Winchester on the usual route.
As for Route 32, Jelinski said the 6:58 a.m. start time at the Hwy. M and Hwy. N drop off would push the route to over an hour. Prior to the consolidation, the start time was 7:15 a.m.
“And that’s in good weather,” board member Brian Derber said.
According to Jelinski, one of the questions brought forth by the transportation committee regarding the consolidation process was whether the bus company could provide consistent drivers should the district decide to maintain a five-route system.
“They said they can’t guarantee that it would be a consistent driver on that bus,” Jelinski said.
The shortage of drivers has also lead the company to bring in drivers from other terminals, such as Waukesha, according to board president Deb Skrobot and board member Kristina Kassien.
Having a consistent driver is important, Jelinski said, as they build trust with students and know the routes.
“It gets difficult for new drivers to come in,” he said.
Impacts on families
The board also considered the potential impact combining the routes, or adding more common drop offs, could have on families that rely on the school bus for transportation.
“Well, it’s 6:58 a.m. on the one end, it’s how much later on the other end, and how that effects families, too,” Derber said.
“And when they get home from school. That might be the bigger impact for some,” board treasurer Kari Moon said.
Jelinski said the biggest time difference was the initial pickup at Hwy. M and N at 17 minutes, whereas the time change for the Route 27 consolidation was 12 minutes. With either route, Jelinski said some stops were going to be earlier or later.
According to Jelinski, the route changes would be implemented next week.
“What really sparked this was that one of the our drivers is resigning and is done at the end of this week,” Jelinski explained.
While Moon said she initially struggled with the thought of kids being on the bus for so long and how the changes impacted families at the end of the day, she also didn’t like the idea of a “revolving door” of bus drivers either.
Down to four
“Let’s say we go to four routes, then we’re also pretty much committing for the rest of the year, four routes,” Derber said, asking if the board should commit to the changes for the year.
“Thinking about this, this shortage could even get worse, so I’m thinking maybe we should just go to four routes, because of that,” Derber said.
“If we can’t get new recruits, it is going to get worse,” Skrobot agreed.
Jelinski said that, though the times were longer, consolidating the routes kept the current stops, which he felt would be easier for families than having to drive extra miles to a new stop.
“I think you’re gonna find a good and bad story throughout the routes,” Jelinski said.
“I’m actually surprised that by going to four routes, it’s only this small of a change,” Kassien admitted.
Part of the reason for that, Jelinski explained, was when the district had previously consolidated routes, it made them more efficient.
North Lakeland isn’t the only school in the area to have consolidated their routes, as other districts, such as Lakeland Union High School have also consolidated.
Jelinski said he had gotten in touch with the Arbor Vitae-Woodruff and Minocqua J1 school districts and found they both had routes over an hour long.
Derber motioned to consolidate the bus routes for the remainder of the school year, with review at the end of the school year.
The board Monday also:
• Tabled a decision on the LED lighting upgrade pending review from the building committee and looking into references from other schools.
The board received five bids from four companies, with one submitting two bids with different quality fixtures.
Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]