Driving Force

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Louisville, Ky.

42ew-f2.jpg (7633 bytes) There is dew on the bluegrass as Rachel Kleinhenz steps out into the cool dark of a May morning to start her long journey to school. The quiet is broken by the deep rumble of a diesel motor straining uphill, and she breaks into a run as headlight beams flash around the corner. At 6:37 a.m., as he does every morning on school days, Larry Jones pulls up outside Rachel's house on Easum Road, and the 7th grader climbs aboard the big yellow bus for the ride to Noe Middle School.

All across Jefferson County, Ky., this simple morning ritual is repeated 74,000 times over. The effort it takes to transport all those youngsters to school and get them safely home, however, is anything but simple. Each school day, nearly 800 buses crisscross the greater Louisville area, racking up enough miles among them to circle the earth three times over.

To make it all work and work on time involves a complex network of people, resources, machinery, and 1.8 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. By most accounts, the county does a pretty good job at it, moving more children with fewer buses than similar districts, and keeping a clean safety record.

Of course, it isn't a matter of merely picking up the children and dropping them off at the nearest school.

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Larry Jones looks under the hood of his bus with a flashlight to check the oil. Then he circles around back to check his "big yellows" and "big reds." The colored safety lights pass muster. To keep to his schedule, he must leave the Jeffersontown depot, on Jefferson County's far east side, at 6 a.m. His route takes him through a sparsely populated area, so he's got to drive for almost an hour to gather 14 students.

The district's transportation system must also account for a web of magnet academies and open-enrollment options, a legacy of bitter and lengthy battles over desegregation that ended in 1978 when Louisville's schools merged with the county's. As a result, many schools draw students from all over the 368-square-mile district.

42ew-f5.jpg (61171 bytes) Students from two of the county's magnet career academies, Central High School and Shawnee High School, play spades to pass the time. It will take a half-hour to reach Central, a selective magnet in downtown Louisville with an array of programs designed to lure students in from the suburbs. Unfortunately, it doesn't lure enough. The school, which once had an all-black enrollment, is now limited under a county plan to being no more than 50 percent black. That means a white student has to choose to go there, usually by bus, in order to open up another seat for a black student. Right now, Central High has hundreds of empty seats but cannot accept black students who qualify because it would upset the mandated racial balance.

Then there are the different starting times. Jefferson County's high schools and middle schools begin their day at 7:45. The bell rings in elementary schools at 9:05, and early-childhood programs start at 10. The schedule allows some buses and drivers to make two runs a morning.

That keeps down the size of the bus fleet, as does the fact that not all the students arrive at school on the same buses they crawled onto at their neighborhood stops. More than one in 10 students rides to one of several depots--similar to the "hubs" at major airports that some airlines use-- where they transfer to assigned buses heading to the right school.

All this costs a lot--about $28 million a year. That's more than 6 percent of the district's $465 million operating budget for 1997-98. The money goes not only to pay for the drivers, buses, maintenance, and fuel, but also for the head-spinning logistical tasks involved in planning thousands of routes, keeping the buses running, training drivers, and satisfying a multitude of legal and insurance concerns.

The 30 district employees who work on the planning effort spend all summer preparing schedules for the coming year. August to October is what Chris Dunbar, the district's operations manager, calls "organized chaos." It's so busy then that workers are not supposed to schedule vacations. In the first month of school, the office usually receives around 5,000 phone calls asking about bus routes.

Somehow, it all seems to work out every day so that, 45 minutes after she climbed aboard Bus 9504, Rachel steps down outside the front door at Noe Middle School, throws her book bag over her shoulder, and heads for class.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 32-39

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Driving Force
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