More than 150,000 North County elementary, junior high and high school students will make their way back to the classroom next week. But, in true Southern California fashion, few of these children will walk to school.
Some will drive themselves, others will be dropped off by parents. Most North County students, however, will ride the bus. They will be bused to their schools from as far as 45 miles and as near as a couple of blocks.
In most school districts, at least 50% of the students ride the bus. In rural districts, where there is an absence of sidewalks and safe walking routes, 100% of the children are shuttled back and forth every school day.
Most North County school districts own and operate their own fleets, and the buses are used for everything from taking students to and from school to providing transportation for out-of-town field trips. In the Julian Union School District, the bus drivers double as custodians at the elementary school and high school.
A handful of districts--Rancho Santa Fe Union, Spencer Valley, Escondido Union, Carlsbad Unified and Vallecitos--provide no bus service. There, most children get to school via car pools or family car.
In North County, the bus systems vary from as few as four buses in a district to as many as 100. All are managed in-house, unlike its neighbor to the south, the San Diego Unified School District, which reinforces its fleet with buses from four independent charter companies.
The San Dieguito Transportation Cooperative has one bus, vintage 1966, that is still used daily to ferry about 65 students. The Poway Unified School District has one of the youngest fleets around. Its oldest bus is a 1973 model, but it has several 1990 models as well.
Most buses have a 30-year life span and hold as many as 70 children.
The price tag on a district operating its own transportation fleet is formidable. The average cost of a single school bus is $100,000; to that initial investment, the continuing expense of salaries, fuel, maintenance, training and administration must be added.
"It's a Catch 22," said Tom Chaffin, director of transportation for the Poway Unified School District. "More kids are taking the bus to school, however, school districts, especially in California, are having to cut transportation because of funding. Transportation is not a mandated service so if it doesn't receive mandated money, districts have to reduce the services and push the walking distances out further."
Some districts require students to buy bus passes to help cover the cost of the trip to and from school. Poway, for instance, charges $90 per child annually while Valley Center, which buses 94% of its students, charges nothing at all.
Currently, in Ramona, parents and school officials are squaring off over the district's intention to charge $150 annually for a child to ride the bus.
To control costs, five elementary school districts along the coast--Del Mar, Encinitas, Cardiff, San Dieguito and Solana Beach--formed the San Dieguito Transportation Cooperative. In existence since 1977, the co-op is made up of 50 buses, 32 routes and the superintendents of each member school district.
Woody Woodruff, dispatcher for the cooperative, said there have been few problems with five school superintendents sharing a bus system. The biggest puzzle is trying to schedule pickups and drop-offs to ensure that every child gets to school on time.
"There was some controversy over the superintendents wanting different times, wanting to go earlier than they had been, but they had to sit down and work it out," Woodruff said.
All the co-op members except Del Mar charge the students for a bus pass. Cost ranges from $100 to $120 for a full year to $30 for a quarter or $55 for a semester. If there are more than two children in a family riding the bus, each additional child pays half price.
Most elementary school students spend less than half an hour each way on the bus, Woodruff said. The first child picked up in the morning is the last child dropped off in the afternoon and he or she spends less than an hour on the bus both ways, he said.
Although almost every school district has distance qualifications for which students are eligible to ride the bus, safety is the topmost consideration. The general rule of thumb is that students must live at least a mile from their school to be eligible to ride the bus, but often that is waived because of hazardous walking or biking conditions.
Rural areas, such as Pauma and San Pasqual Union, where there are no sidewalks and long swaths of highway, all students are bused. But urban areas present their own problems.
In Oceanside, for example, the 1-mile radius rule is flexible because of busy streets and "attractive" hazards. It is very common for children living less than a mile from school to ride the bus, said Dan Armstrong, a spokesman for the district.
"Oceanside is a community where we have a river and deep ravines," Armstrong said. "We don't want youngsters walking to school where there is a heavy safety hazard or an attractive hazard. The transportation department makes the decision who rides the bus, but they are very liberal. We figure if we're going to err, we'll do it on the safe side."
In Del Mar, the two elementary schools in the district are located on opposite sides of Del Mar Heights Road, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. The district has buses safely shuttle the kids across the busy street to their schools.
Federal standards, California law and sometimes additional district policies govern every aspect of busing kids to school--from the location of the bus stop to the training of the driver.
Bus drivers in the state must be at least 18 years of age and have a minimum of 40 hours training on driving a bus. Drivers must also have a Class B commercial driver's license and first aid training.
A special school bus driver certificate is another requirement in California, as is getting a physical every two years. Currently, there is no drug testing for drivers, however, the Poway Unified School District is considering that option.
Bus drivers must also be savvy with the "Passenger Transportation Safety Handbook," put out by the California Highway Patrol. The manual is a conglomeration of rules and regulations and includes everything from the state Vehicle Code to education and penal codes.
The buses themselves have to meet a number of safety specifications.
Chaffin, Poway's transportation director, is president of the National Assn. for Pupil Transportation, which, in part, assists the federal government in setting safety guidelines for buses and drivers. Part of his job as president of the association is keeping a dialogue going between bus manufacturers, transportation directors and the government.
Chaffin is a firm believer that riding in a school bus is safer than an airplane, a private automobile or even the two-legged mode of transportation--walking.
Every detail, from the color of the bus to the flammability of material used for seat covers, is listed in a 15-page manual of national standards, Chaffin said.
Every school bus in the country is bathed in a color known as National School Bus Yellow, a color that can knock out your eye at 20 paces.
"It's a very visible color in all light," Chaffin said. "It's also the norm, so if you're traveling the country you don't have to be looking for different colors of school buses. A school bus in West Virginia looks the same as one in California."
Other safety features mandate how seats are bolted to the floor of the bus, the strength of a bus roof in case of a rollover and windows that won't pop out in an accident. School buses must be equipped with a minimum of one fire extinguisher, emergency reflectors or flares, and at least one emergency exit.
Buses are required by law to be inspected every 45 days or 3,000 miles, whichever comes first. During these periodic pokings and proddings, the brakes and lights are checked for good working order, among other things.
Ironically, a common safety feature in automobiles is not required on school buses. Seat belts (lap belts or shoulder harnesses) are not required by law and there are no plans in the future to install them on school buses, Chaffin said.
A 1987 study conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the use of lap belts would not have prevented 13 passenger deaths studied and an additional death might have occurred, Chaffin said. The study also stated that lap belt use would have worsened the outcome for one-fifth of the passengers who received moderate injuries.
Shoulder harnesses are not considered an option on school buses because they are hard to install and implement, Chaffin said.
"It would be like trying to do a middle seat of a car, there is no upright support," he said. "School bus seats hold three children. Harnesses can be attached to the side walls for the children sitting on the outside, but it wouldn't protect the four children in the middle."
The California Highway Patrol, which responds to all accidents involving school buses, recorded 2,949 accidents statewide in 1990. Less than a fourth of bus-related accidents in the state resulted in student injuries. There was one death--a 15-year-old boy crossing the roadway after exiting a school bus with its lights flashing was struck and killed by a vehicle being driven by a drunk driver.
The mettle of North County's buses and bus drivers alike will be tested yet again Tuesday as students armed with backpacks and textbooks line up to climb aboard their appointed bus and start a new school year.
There is a certain comfort in the constancy of the scene.
Chaffin says that, for many children, the bus and bus driver are an important stabilizing influence on their day.
"The child knows you will be there at 7:10 every morning and that you'll be there at 2:30 every afternoon. What happens at the house and what happens at school can change, but that bus is there every day."