SDUHSD faces declining ridership, driver shortages with its bus service

The San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) is facing challenges about what to do about its transportation services. At the Dec. 14 board meeting, the SDUHSD board heard a report about the status of the program, in which bus ridership has decreased 65 percent in the last 10 years.

“We have some issues regarding the program including declining ridership and shortages of bus drivers, coupled with the fact that the program is getting more and more expensive as the ridership decreases,” said Tina Douglas, associate superintendent of business services.

Home to school transportation has been eliminated in the San Marcos, Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista Unified School Districts and San Diego Unified School District is looking at significant reductions in its service in 2018-19. None of the neighboring school districts offer buses.

San Dieguito’s actual ridership is about 335 students on the bus in the morning and 282 in the afternoon. Bus service peaked in the district in the 2010-11 school year, when there were 1,307 riders. For 2016-17, transportation costs reached $977,174 and the revenue coming in from bus passes is $241,000. Taking out the money that the district gets from the state, it’s about a $235,000 shortage,Douglas said.

There was a significant drop in ridership from the 2014-15 school year to 2015-16, when the district aligned middle school bus schedules to be within 10 minutes of each other, said Dan Love, director of transportation. Buses must deliver students very early to Oak Crest and Earl Warren schools in order to pick up Diegeno and Carmel Valley Middle School students on time. Earl Warren students are picked up at 6:45 a.m. and dropped off at 7:45 a.m. for the 8:20 a.m. start time.

“That did us in. We can’t expand service because we don’t have time. Students are dropped off an hour early or picked up an hour late in the afternoon. That was what really caused ridership to plummet,” Love said.

The district currently has 10-and-a-half middle school routes, with only three routes at 100 percent capacity, including two in Carmel Valley Middle School and one at Diegueno. Ridership is better at Earl Warren Middle School in the afternoon, with one route at 10 percent capacity in the morning and 74 percent capacity in the afternoon. One of the morning routes at Oak Crest is at 4 percent capacity — as 50 is a full bus, there was just four riders on the bus.

“We have some empty buses on the road,” Douglas said.

There are only two high school routes offered, to Torrey Pines and Sunset High School. The morning route for Torrey Pines is at 48 percent while the afternoon is at 28 percent. At Sunset, the morning route is 60 percent full and the afternoon is at 26 percent.

Douglas said in addition to running buses with fewer and fewer kids in them, the district’s fleet is also aging. The average age of the buses is 15 years and they have issues finding replacement parts because after 10 years the manufacturers are longer required to make those parts.

San Dieguito is not alone in its bus driver shortage, as Douglas said the bus driver shortage is industry-wide.

“We have a hard time filling bus driver positions, in fact, it’s continually open,” Douglas said, noting staff backfills for drivers during absences because there aren’t enough substitutes.

Douglas said they believe that five or more drivers will retire in the spring, which will just add to the shortage.

Douglas said as they consider the district budget,they are looking at everything they can to provide better efficiencies in transportation and avoid a potential “crisis,” particularly with the driver shortage. The district may also consider a parent survey about bus routes.

Despite the challenges they face, it is still an important service for many families, Love said.

“People using the bus right now, the actual ridership, are the people that need it the most,” Love said.

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