Walking another half-mile or so couldn’t stop these kids from taking the school bus.
It was 2010, and the Cherry Creek School District was hurting for money. As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. When the Cherry Creek Board of Education decided to change bus boundaries across the district in 2010, it was all about pinching pennies.
In a year that saw millions cut from schools by the state, districts across Colorado were all about finding value. At Cherry Creek, that meant expanding bus boundaries in the 108-square-mile district. The distance would increase from 1.5 to 2 miles for high schoolers. For middle school students, the boundaries would increase from 1 to 1.5 miles.
District officials knew that the move, along with changes to schools’ bell schedules, would save the district about $2 million. What they didn’t know was exactly how it would affect the number of kids riding the bus.
“We weren’t sure what the percentage of ridership was going to be after,” recalls Mike Hush, director of the transportation for the district.
Turns out an extra half-mile couldn’t keep riders away. The global recession was hitting families across the district; they had their own financial problems, it seemed, and driving to school wasn’t always an option. Parents couldn’t afford to buy cars for their high school students. Ridership jumped from an average of about 55 percent district-wide to more than 70 percent despite the boundary changes. At schools in the district’s Aurora stretches, it topped 90 percent.
“At the high-school level, kids weren’t driving as much,” Mike recalls. “I think a lot of parents had to scale back on taking students to the school.”
But it was more than mere dollars that kept the kids showing up to bus stops in fair and foul weather alike. In Aurora, there’s a reason public school kids and parents rely on public school districts for transportation, more so than even Denver Public Schools (DPS students get passes for RTD buses). There’s a reason why the 2013-14 transportation budget is $19.2 million out of a total $448 million general fund budget in Cherry Creek and $6.6 million out of $317.8 million general fund budget in Aurora Public Schools.
A lot of it boils down to infrastructure. Aurora isn’t New York. Students don’t have access to a constant flow of buses, trains and subways. Heck, the eventual plans for light rail along I-225 aren’t likely to do much good for the new neighborhoods springing up in the southeast stretches of the city. The neighborhoods around newer schools in Cherry Creek like Grandview and Eaglecrest high schools still lack a basic bus system. The newest, far-flung buildings in APS are in southeast stretches where buses don’t even run.
“If you look at schools like Vista PEAK and even Murphy Creek, those are our schools on the eastern part of the district,” says Josh Hensley, planning coordinator at APS. “Right now, there isn’t even any RTD service out to those schools.”
Lack of a better public transportation system is only part of the reason why students in Aurora still rely so much on the school bus. Students, parents and even teachers have hangups that have to do with living on the fringes of a Western city — far from the subways of the East Coast and even the denser RTD routes of Denver, parents aren’t so quick to trust their kids to a public bus system.
“The infrastructure would have to come first and then parents’ confidence. You still have parents who would not dream of putting children on public transportation alone,” notes Cherry Creek spokeswoman Tustin Amole. “Once the infrastructure is in place, then you could start to address the cultural changes that would need to take place.”
That means convincing parents to drop off Johnny on a public bus or light rail, no matter how scary it may seem. That step may not be so far off in certain parts of the city, neighborhoods off of I-225 where light rail lines are starting to rise and buses run regularly.
“I think as the light rail continues to evolve and change, I see no reason why the district in the future won’t be engaged further with RTD,” said APS Chief Operating Officer Anthony Sturges.
For the moment, though, districts still have to dedicate millions of dollars to those yellow beasts that ferry kids across the city. Plenty of parents and students are still counting on them.