The Citrus County School District’s busing service is asking parents to be patient and proactive as it irons out slow routes and overcrowded buses.
“It does take us a little bit of time," district Transportation Director Marilyn Farmer said, saying the problems tend to arise annually but wane in a few weeks. “We do jump on the issues or the concern areas right away.”
Farmer said the past several days have been smooth compared to the start of school years past. She said drivers have been finishing their routes by 6 p.m. during the first week of school.
“We’ve been getting out relatively on time,” said Farmer, who’s going on her 18th year as the department’s head.
Farmer asked parents to bear with the the district while transportation staff addresses travel-time and capacity issues, but also alert officials if there’s a problem.
To make a report about buses servicing Crystal River-area schools, call 352-795-0057; for Lecanto schools, call 352-746-2714; and for Inverness schools, call 352-344-2193.
Parents can also access information about their child’s bus route, including stop times and locations, by visiting tinyurl.com/jodhdn6 or by calling the transportation department’s hotline at 352-637-9710.
“If they think it’s taking too long because they’re being patient, it may be something we’re not aware of,” Farmer said. “Parents, feel free to call us and alert us.”
Before school starts, the transportation department downloads information that parents submitted over the summer in an online portal with the district.
This allows Farmer’s staff to create stops that are within a reasonable distance — up to 1 1/2 miles — from their homes.
But instances arise in which a child has a regular after-school event or other location they need to be dropped off at that isn’t their primary address, confusing route coordination.
That’s why it’s important, Farmer said, to keep student school forms updated.
Farmer said it’s harder to change a student’s stop five days or so before school starts because that’s when her department freezes routes.
It’s possible after that freeze point to amend a child’s stop, and, depending on how far away that is, it can be done within 10 days, Farmer said.
“Absolutely what you’re asking us is reasonable,” she said. “It just takes us a couple of days because we have to send notices to other parents.”
Student drop-off and dismissal times vary depending on their grade level, according to the school district.
After dropping off middle and high school students at their respective and neighboring schools or stops, bus drivers double back to complete routes for elementary students, Farmer said.
Buses try to unload students off at high schools between 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.; at middle schools between 7:20 a.m. and 7:40 a.m.; and at elementary schools between 8:50 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Dismissal times at middle schools are from 2:20 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., and buses try to pull out by 2:40 p.m. when high school students let out.
Some buses will transport both middle and high school students, Farmer said, before they pick up elementary students being dismissed at 3:35 p.m. with the goal of leaving those schools by 3:50 p.m.
Farmer said her department’s average route travel time for students is within the ideal times set by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), which has decreed that secondary-grade students must not travel for longer than an hour and primary students no more than 50 minutes.
There are cases when times exceed an hour, Farmer said, like when a student who’s zoned to attend a school in Crystal River lives in Chassahowitzka or near Dunnellon.
“We try not to make it too dramatic,” Farmer said.
Most times during the early days of a school year, delayed bus routes come down to students — especially younger ones — not knowing which bus to get on, Farmer said.
Construction zones and flooding along U.S. 19 in Homosassa and between Crystal River have also obstructed bus routes, Farmer noted.
Drivers also do their best to make sure buses don’t have more than 77 people onboard, or three to a seat.
If Farmer’s department notices a chance to shift numbers around from bus to bus, they have to figure it out in a way that doesn’t drastically affect others’ stops.
Farmer said it would be easy to shorten travel times if she had more buses and drivers. Out of the 165 driver positions, five need to be filled, but Farmer said it’s her department’s force of substitute drivers that are suffering. If a regular bus driver calls out of their shift, a certified sub driver has to take over.
“We don’t ever have enough bus drivers, and when we do have routes filled, it’s drivers calling off,” Farmer said.
Anyone interested in becoming a bus driver can call the district's main number at 352-726-1931 and ask for the transportation department.
Farmer said it’s tough to entice and retain drivers because of the demanding responsibilities and split-shift hours.
“Even if we did have unlimited funds, we’d still have a difficult time filling all those positions — and we’re not alone, it’s all across the nation that there’s a shortage of bus operators,” she said. “There has been since I started, and it’s been getting worse ever since.”