Bus system poses big challenge for booming district

School buses leave Fort Mill High School on Tuesday afternoon.
School buses leave Fort Mill High School on Tuesday afternoon.

FORT MILL -- A tardy child. A forgotten trumpet left under a seat. A school bus breakdown.

Those can be expected.

But in Fort Mill, the state's fastest-growing school district, administrators grapple with providing transportation to the increasing student population and devising routes to reach new neighborhoods while finding enough buses in the first place.

During the past five years of phenomenal growth, Fort Mill has acquired 15 buses from the state. Four of those arrived this year, and the school district spent $88,900 for three used activity buses, painting them yellow to meet state specifications.

The state will not pay to carry children who live within a mile and a half of their school. Those four buses often are used for children living inside that zone where walking can be hazardous. They brought the district's fleet to 46.

"We are in the process of applying for five more now," said Bernard Gill, district transportation manager. "When we get those, we likely will need to apply for at least another five. Some developments have 1,000 houses not even built yet."

It's not unusual for a dozen new streets to open in a month, said Karen Puthoff, a district assistant superintendent.

"The developments come on so quickly, sometimes we find out new streets exist, and students live there because we pass them," she said. "Angry parents call and we add them to the list."

In addition to the routine tasks of assuring that thousands of children get safely to and from school each day, Fort Mill school officials are constantly updating bus ridership numbers and revising routes.

So far, the state Department of Education's transportation department has kept up with Fort Mill's requests for new routes, although paperwork takes time and a state official must do an on-site study to determine the need.

About 20 percent of the state's 85 school districts are growing rapidly, while others have declining enrollment, said Don Tudor, director of the education department's transportation divi- sion. Although some districts are bigger, Fort Mill's percentage of enrollment growth is the largest in the state.

Last year, Fort Mill school buses plied 2,285 miles per day, Gill said. This year, they travel 3,400 miles per day, and that number is climbing. About 4,000 of the district's roughly 8,700 students ride the buses to and from school.

But the state does not allocate buses based on growth projections.

"The state formula is based on actual ridership, so everything runs a year behind," Puthoff said. "This year's buses are based on ridership last year."

Some school districts are considering a registration program requiring parents to sign up children for bus seats to improve communication, Tudor said.

Enrollment freezes at Orchard Park and Gold Hill elementary schools also have created a bus strain. Newly enrolled children living in the Orchard Park and Gold Hill attendance zones board the bus at those schools, then are shuttled to Riverview Elementary.

With Springfield Elementary exceeding capacity this year, it also could face an enrollment freeze, as could Fort Mill Elementary, where attendance is expanding with new development along Doby's Bridge Road. That could create a need for more shuttle buses, although the district is rapidly depleting its supply of empty seats at Riverview. Shuttles also travel between the district's two high schools for specific programs.

Gill and his staff ride behind buses each day to monitor safety. Also, they check bus routes afterward to assure a tardy child has not been left at a bus stop.

There's one more thing Gill is sure of.

"We're always going to be behind," he said. "Each day, you give it your best. No two days are the same. There's never a dull moment."