Long Ride

Students sound off as Santa Fe Public Schools consolidates bus routes in the face of driver shortage

As Santa Fe Public Schools continue to search for bus drivers to fill vacant jobs, high school and middle school students report recent changes in transportation services from the district have them spending more time on buses and relying more on rides from their parents.

SFPS announced in late October it would eliminate seven bus routes beginning Nov. 6 in the face of a driver shortage, then rolled out a plan for new “hub locations” to serve affected schools and an estimated 257 students who live in areas surrounding Eldorado, Tesuque and the northeastern and South Capitol areas of Santa Fe.

The hubs consolidate bus routes to middle and high schools by having students walk or ride to their nearest elementary schools, where they can be picked up by a bus that drops them off at Santa Fe High School, Milagro Middle School and Mandela International Magnet School. However, the bus route discontinuations also eliminated buses entirely for four elementary schools: Tesuque, Wood-Gormley, Atalaya and Chaparral.

While officials have said they aim for the consolidation to be temporary, news of the decision and its details has been slow to reach some students. Initially, says Mandela International Magnet School sophomore Robin Hickerson, that created confusion and panic.

“A lot of kids didn’t even know the buses were being canceled until the day of, or week of,” Hickerson tells SFR.

Hickerson initiated a survey of her fellow classmates from Mandela a few days after the district announced it was canceling routes. According to 29 fellow bus-riders who responded, the vast majority said they didn’t have their own driver’s licenses and their parents work full time. Most said they could rely on a parent to drive them, but nearly 21% said they had no other transportation options. The extended bus route, wrote junior Emily Malvig, is “just so long.”

“The decision to remove the buses for high schoolers is idiotic,” wrote Giordana Diruggiero, a freshman who previously caught a direct bus at Amy Biehl or El Dorado Community School. Now, the only route available serves four schools, with Mandela as the last stop.

Sophomore Montgomery Waltz reported, “I don’t have a car and can’t find many other sources other than to ride a bus.”

Jordan Chavez, an eighth grader who lives on the city’s Southside, said he hopes the district can hire bus drivers “so we don’t have to drive around Santa Fe for almost an hour.”

Hickerson, who formerly caught a bus from Chaparral Elementary, is among students who bailed on buses because of extended ride times. “I haven’t really taken the bus since they changed it, but not because they don’t have a route in place for me. It just takes a lot longer now,” she says, noting that riding in a parent’s car takes about 20 minutes, compared to a minimum of an hour and a half on the bus. “I’m lucky because I have that option, but there’s a ton of kids who don’t have a dependable car or can’t drive at all.”

While district officials intend for the hub locations to serve additional students, longer bus rides for middle and high schoolers may have unintended consequences: According to a December 2021 study from Temple and Syracuse universities, students with morning bus routes exceeding an hour have lower attendance rates, missing an extra day of school compared to those on shorter routes.

SFPS already struggles with low attendance. Its chronic absentee rate in the 2022-2023 school year was nearly 51%. Only 29% and 14% of students at Santa Fe and Capital high schools regularly attended school that year. District officials have said they need to increase attendance rates to improve outcomes, including standardized test scores; students with higher attendance rates performed better in state assessments last year.

Route 35, which moves north from Lamy to Eldorado and drops off K-6 students at El Dorado Community School, is among those to grow longer after route closures. Daniel Clark, the bus driver, makes his first stop at about 6:20 am and arrives at the school by 7:45 am. Under the district’s new plan, his route has three more stops to serve as hubs accommodating middle and high school students—extending the route’s length by another hour.

Clark says the number of high school and middle school students he drives varies by the day, and the numbers can be low. On the day he spoke to SFR, he drove two students to Santa Fe High and five to Mandela, dropping Mandela students off 10 minutes after the first period began at 8:35.

SFPS Transportation Director Cesario Flores tells SFR hiring drivers has been an ongoing battle since COVID-19. Two years ago, the district had 65 bus routes. Now, it has 32, with only 30 drivers on staff to complete them.

“We’re not trying to cause any pain or inconvenience to families…we just can’t sustain all routes,” Flores says.

The end game, he says, is to restore the most recently eliminated routes, and the district has been advertising online and at job fairs as well as reaching out to private bus companies to contract more drivers, among other strategies. SFPS is also offering free, paid training on receiving a Commercial Driver’s License with a school bus driver endorsement. Two new drivers are undergoing the district’s eight-week training now.

In the meantime, Flores says he plans to communicate with parents and school administrators on alternatives such as carpooling. Additionally, the district is offering mileage reimbursement of 47 cents per mile to families who drive their children to and from school due to route closures. The district expects to issue checks to families near the end of each quarter, according to SFPS Public Information Officer Cody Dynarski.

“They’re all trying to be creative and come up with anything they can,” Flores says. “But whatever we can do to assist with that, we’re going to do.”

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