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Houston ISD cuts magnet bus stops to shorten student commutes

August 2, 2018

On some mornings when she arrived shortly after the morning bell at Energy Institute High School, a Houston ISD magnet campus just east of downtown, parent and PTO president Bendi Saindon spotted students arriving late and missing the beginning of class.

“There were many days with kids lined out the door as tardy, just because they got off a bus late,” Saindon said.

For years, many of HISD’s magnet students have endured lengthy, winding bus rides that too often arrive late to their destination. It is a problem district leaders hope to address this year with a new bus route system, though it comes with a tradeoff that will further burden some HISD families.

Under the new system unveiled in recent days, HISD magnet students will take more direct routes to their campuses starting this month, reducing transportation headaches for children and drivers. To accommodate the change, however, HISD is cutting the number of pick-up and drop-off locations available to students.

The first day of school for students is Aug. 27.

Previously, magnet students boarded and left buses at stops close to home, but they often traveled circuitous routes with students who attended neighborhood or non-magnet schools. Now, the district’s estimated 19,000 magnet students eligible for transportation will be picked up and dropped off at one of 46 spots strategically spread across the city, with more hubs in areas of higher demand.

Tim Brown, HISD’s Transportation Services general manager, said the previous magnet route system had become “very chaotic,” resulting in too many students missing the start of school after hour-plus bus rides.

“I get it. Everyone wants their level of convenience,” Brown said. “But when you’re talking about on-time arrival, when you’re talking about fleet efficiency, sometimes you have to make changes.”

HISD administrators said they are hopeful the changes will result in financial savings, but they will not know for at least a year. Although HISD slashed about $84 million from its $2 billion budget this year, the magnet transportation changes were not made to help close the shortfall, district officials said.

The 46 pick-up and drop-off hubs spread to virtually all corners of the 333-square-mile district, with routes set to the district’s nearly 120 magnet schools. Most families will need to travel fewer than three miles to reach a hub, but those in a few pockets — notably the northeastern and central-eastern edges of the district, as well as the Westbury and Meyerland regions — could face longer commutes.

Brown said district staff analyzed magnet enrollment patterns, traffic trends and campus safety data in determining the hub locations. Areas on the district’s south and southwest sides, where more than 2,000 kids traveled to magnet schools last year, have several hubs. By comparison, the far northeastern corner of the district, where a few hundred students leave for magnets, has a single hub.

“A large percentage of it was truly based on residential data and where these kids come from who attend magnet programs,” Brown said. He added that the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods played no role in determining hub locations.

District officials are having preliminary discussions with METRO about providing additional city bus services to families that cannot transport children to or from hubs, but nothing has been finalized, Brown said.

For families living closer to hubs, the transportation changes likely will mean less time in transit for students. Saindon, for example, expects her son will continue to be picked up at the same location as last year, with fewer stops along the route to school.

Others expect a bigger burden this year. Sarah Levit’s son, who attends Pershing Middle School, previously would walk to and from his bus stop. Now, there is no hub between her house and Pershing, located about four miles away.

Levit said she can transport her son daily, but she worries other families cannot be as flexible.

“It’s really putting it on the parents to get carpool situations for the kids,” Levit said.

Wretha Thomas, president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel union, which represents about 900 bus drivers in HISD, said it is too early to know how the route changes will impact her members. She expects drivers will learn more next week at an in-service session.

“The question for me is, whether they’re going to guarantee hours because there might not be more drive time,” Thomas said.

HISD families have not yet been notified about where their children will be picked up and dropped off. They will begin receiving mailers in the coming days.

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

Twitter.com/ChronJacob

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