School bus

The Sahuarita Unified School District has adjusted every school's start and finish times.

The Sahuarita Unified School District’s governing board has approved new school start and dismissal times at all of its schools for the next academic year.

Some schools will see adjustments of five minutes to 40 minutes.

The decision comes after months of research, planning, meetings and public feedback.

The biggest change in the schedule is Sahuarita Middle School’s departure time, which went from 3:30 p.m. to 2:50 p.m. Their start time also shifted from 8:35 a.m. to 8:05 a.m.

Walden Grove and Sahuarita High School will start 30 minutes later and get out 20 minutes later.

Another of the larger changes is Anza Trail, which will start about 35 minutes later than previous years, at 8:05 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.

Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said while the changes will be an adjustment, this new three-tier schedule is the best option for the district.

“We know it’s not perfect but we’ve created a change we believe will do the most good and is the best fit and that any challenge that may have lingered we will continue working to mitigate,” he said.

Growth, transportation

One of the main reasons for the changes is the growing population of SUSD, which has gone from about 3,000 students in 2005, when Valenzuela arrived, to about 6,500.

Population growth strains an already limited amount of bus drivers and buses, an issue which has affected not only SUSD but many districts around the state, Valenzuela said.

“Bus drivers are a challenge to get and more importantly to keep because there is a significant amount of training and continuing education,” he said. “It's a demanding job with extreme responsibility and historically the hours are irregular.”

Spokeswoman Amber Woods said the district would ideally have one bus driver per route on staff. As routes have yet to be finalized, the district is unsure of that number at the time.

Currently, the district has 39 regularly scheduled bus drivers, five substitute drivers who only drive on occasion and three bus drivers in training.

A new bus up to current standards, which includes climate control, can cost about $190,000, but Valenzuela said they have been purchasing new buses as they can over the last few years to replace those at the end of their efficiency. He said on average that’s about one or two busses a year. Currently, the district has 55 buses in its fleet.

Valenzuela is hopeful the district will be able to attract more drivers with a recently approved $1 pay increase to the hourly base rate, and said having more efficiency with the new three tier schedule should help for retention as well.

Along with reducing the number of overfilled busses and making more efficient routes, the district sees other positives about the new schedule.

Now, all students in SUSD will have the same amount of instructional hours per day, 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Challenges

In the last survey of parents conducted by the district before spring break, of the 300 responders the majority were in support of the changes. About 30 percent were against it.

Jen Wagner’s daughter just finished her junior year at Walden Grove and has been accepted into the Pima JTED Career and Technical Education District’s nursing program next year. These vocational classes are run by Pima County tuition-free and include students from many districts.

Wagner is concerned the new schedule will impact her daughter’s ability to get to her JTED classes.

“If you go with this schedule they will get out so late that they can't make it in time, we’re talking about getting from Walden Grove to these programs,” she said. “(In the meeting) Valenzuela said, ‘We have a good relationship with JTED and they will work with us,’ but why would they when other districts are not changing? Why would they change just for us?”

Wagner was one of many parents to attend a meeting about the proposed changes and said she was only made aware of it from her daughter’s teacher, not the district.

She described the meeting as parents on teams. Those with young children worried about safety while their kids waited earlier in the dark for the bus, while parents of older students were concerned about athletics and extracurricular activities.

Wagner thinks it would make sense to have middle schoolers start earliest since they are old enough to be safe, followed by the high school so they can attend after school classes and programs and have the youngest students start latest.

“Ultimately, this schedule is going to affect working parents who have to drop off their children,” she said. “I know why they’re doing it, there’s not enough buses and drivers, but I don't know the solution, I just know this isn’t it.”

JTED classes were one of the major concerns that arose. Many of these programs are off-campus and require students to drive to locations in Tucson, some as far as La Cholla Boulevard and River Road. Parents have said students already had trouble getting to JTED classes on time before the new schedule.

Valenzuela said they have always worked to accommodate students taking JTED classes and will continue to do so now.

“Yes, we will accommodate students that want to participate and we’ve always had that challenge,” he said. “We will work individually on scheduling students who drive and we’ve been as flexible as we can.”

Valenzuela said JTED will be opening an innovation learning center at The Bridges near Tucson Marketplace off the I-19 in the near future which should reduce travel time for students who attend these classes.

Another concern that arose was childcare options for parents who can’t make the new times because of their work schedules.

Valenzuela said they will monitor this and if enough families are experiencing this hardship, they will provide a site where families can drop off their students through their LINK program. Additionally, the district is adding more lighting and other updates to the fields to try and make it a more comfortable place for students to wait.

Dixie Ward has three children in the district, as well as 10  grandchildren there. She’s been fighting the bus schedule for several years and said she eventually gave up.

“I’ve been in the district since 1993, and so now this past year we fought over bus schedules because the elementary kids have to get there at 5:40 a.m.,” she said. “ In the past year, I started driving and with these changes of start times it's not possible to drive to the elementary, middle and high school because of the time difference.”

For her, there’s nothing the district can do to mitigate her concerns and she feels parents’ opinions have not been heard.

“I'm trying to figure out how to get the kids to school because I refuse to let them ride the bus," she said. "There's no reason a child should ride the bus hours prior to start time when we live 17 minutes away from the school."

Throughout the process, Valenzuela said feedback from parents, staff, teachers and the student body have been instrumental, and while he knows this is not a perfect situation, none of the changes were made arbitrarily.

“This is a big deal and something we address in a wide lens with thoughtfulness and mindfulness."

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9732