School district offers glimpse of new bus ID scanner
Students have been known to get on the wrong bus, especially elementary students who just enrolled in the school district. In other cases, a driver may call out from work at a moment’s notice, landing students on a different bus and leaving their parents confused.
Sometimes the bus is simply late to a stop and parents want more information, said Jason Harris, the most recent director of transportation for Manatee County schools.
With hopes of cutting down on transportation headaches, the school district is installing and testing new equipment through 2020. The goal is to eventually track when students enter or exit a school bus, allowing the district to keep parents and state officials informed with quick, accurate information, Harris said.
Manatee ordered the needed equipment for about $56,500 over the last year, the next phase of a long-term transportation project that affects nearly 17,000 students who ride a district school bus. Since 2016, the district upgraded its GPS system, modernized its routing system and launched a phone application for parents.
Harris moved on to become the transportation director for Sarasota County schools on June 14. During his time in Manatee, dispatchers often juggled last-minute changes and calls from parents, he said, explaining the process to find a student who got on the wrong bus.
“We would have to get on our district-wide radio and contact all the buses to narrow it down and then locate the student,” Harris said. “This would give us the ability to hone in on that students and talk to that driver.”
The new plan is for students to scan their ID cards — currently used to buy school lunches — when they enter or exit a school bus. A computer program will then give dispatchers a better idea of which bus a student is riding, when they entered a bus, when they left and which stop they used.
Harris also pointed to state funding as a reason for the incoming program. The district sends its ridership numbers to the Florida Department of Education, meaning the district could receive the wrong amount of transportation funding — too little or too much — if inaccurate numbers are recorded.
The process is currently done by hand, said Doug Wagner, deputy superintendent of business services and operations. Bus drivers take roll call during the survey period, opening the door to human error.
Though it declined to estimate the impact on funding, the state auditor general’s office has found problems with the district’s transportation documents, outlined in a report dated December 2018.
“The bus drivers’ reports for 41 buses were not available at the time of our examination and could not be subsequently located,” the report states. “Consequently, we were unable to verify the ridership of 300 students (21 students were in our test) reported on these buses.”
If all goes according to plan, Manatee will start with a test group before launching a full roll-out of its ID scanners by the second half of the upcoming school year.
The scanners will interface with an existing phone and internet application, known as WheresTheBus, which currently gives parents an estimated time of arrival for their student’s bus.
“It just shows you that the bus is either five minutes out or the bus is already gone,” said Bill Wiedeman, the district’s lead mechanic. “It doesn’t tell you that your child has gotten off the bus.”
“And if that bus got reassigned, it only shows your child’s bus,” he continued. “It won’t show you the bus that is actually bringing your child home.”
After the roll-out, parents should have more accurate and timely information about their child’s bus, said Won Oh, assistant director of the transportation department.
“Did he get on the bus? Did he not get on a bus? We’ll be able to pull that up and say hey, he did go on because he swiped his badge,” Oh said. “And if a student got off on the wrong stop, we’ll be able to provide that information as well.”