STATE guidelines say no elementary student should be on a school bus more than 30 minutes each way, no middle school student should have more than a 45-minute ride, and no high school student should face more than an hour on a bus one-way. Those guidelines are worthless, however, as reporters Eric Eyre and Scott Finn discovered during an exhaustive investigation. In Pocahontas County, some grade-school students are stuck on a bus for an hour and 40 minutes each way. One high school student has a nearly two-hour bus ride each way. These are not isolated incidents. Eyre and Finn found that the number of children who ride school buses more than two hours a day doubled during the 1990s, even as West Virginia?s number of students declined greatly.
State and county school officials have ignored a law requiring them to study the amount of time students spend on buses. Because few accurate records are kept, the Gazette reporters painstakingly had to gather and analyze information on 1,500 bus runs in 35 rural counties.
Consolidation ? merging local schools into larger, more distant ones ? has added to the length of time West Virginia kids spend on buses. In providing funds for construction, the School Building Authority gives far more weight to ?economies of scale,? requiring minimum sizes for schools to get funding, than to travel times. West Virginia spends 7 percent of its education budget on transportation, more than any other state in the nation. The wave of consolidations in the 1990s drove up those costs. Four counties spend more than 10 percent of their budgets on busing. Gilmer County spends more than $1,000 per student on transportation.
This must eat heavily into any savings realized by consolidation. However, the School Building Authority has never determined whether any money is saved by consolidation. The costs are more than financial. These long bus rides make kids tired, cranky and hard to teach. Research shows that excessive bus rides may even harm children?s health, exposing them to unsafe levels of diesel exhaust. The kids have less time for family, homework and a social life, said a researcher who studied Canadian children with long rides. Other researchers have found that students with long bus rides score lower on standardized tests. This situation is intolerable. Grownups could not deal with commutes of this length, and the grownups in charge of state schools should ensure that young children are shielded from them. It may take more money: more buses and bus drivers. It may take opening some smaller schools and using distance-learning technology to keep curriculum competitive. But when a 4-year-old like Tommy Evans is subjected to nearly three hours on a bus every day, as Eyre and Finn found, something must change, and soon.