City asks schools about buses for commuters

At the request of City Council, the Mercer Island School Board included the potential use of school buses for public use as an agenda item for discussion at its annual school board retreat Wednesday, June 25 at the Mercer Island High School library.

City Manager Noel Treat made a request that the superintendent consider whether or not school district buses may be used to replace cancelled Metro routes for Mercer Island. While the superintendent found using school buses with another public agency may be legal with certain conditions, a number of logistical issues would make it challenging, even before considering if it set a bad precedent.

Some of the logistical hurdles were the district doesn’t have a lot of buses and any non-student transportation would have to be outside regular transportation times for students, which take place between 7-10 a.m., 12-1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. Consistency would be an issue, as the school schedule changes for testing and finals, early dismissals and weather-related delays, which would make it difficult to keep stable routes. Additional staff would be needed to manage routes, drivers, dispatch, complaints, breakdowns and accidents.

And there are significant differences between laws for passengers on school buses versus those on public buses, regarding crossing laws, loading and unloading, seating requirements and objects that can’t be taken on board.

“All those issues were considered, and the board did not express an interest to go down that road with the city because of those very issues, largely around the fact that we wouldn’t know if we could use our buses during our peak times,” said Plano. “The direction I got was to ask the city to go back to Metro to find a more viable option.”

“The laws are different for children and adults. How would that work with adults? Would people understand the difference? People don’t stop for the Metro bus, they go around. For children, that’d be catastrophic. Safety reasons, over logistical reasons, gave the greatest concern.”

Also discussed at the retreat was the expansion of world languages at the elementary school level, something Plano says the board is interested in, asking the superintendent to put together a study of feasibility and inviting experts and consultants to the board to study the issue.

“The board and I believe that learning a world language is best suited for the youngest brain in acquiring language development,” said Plano. “A child at 5 is easier taught a second language than at 15. The exposure and immersion of a world language is a richer experience, even in their own language. Having a child become bilingual helps even with learning their native language. It’s reciprocal.”

The board would be able to push this issue through a policy amendment requiring the superintendent deliver a world languages program to K-5th grade students, or through another amendment requiring student fluency in a second language by a to-be-determined grade level.

But because additional revenue has not been provided by the state, the board would have to identify funding for a new initiative in both cases.

Mercer Island already offers world languages to K-5th grade students through a before-school program called Sponge, which offers Spanish, Mandarin, French, Japanese and Hindi classes for kids in the greater Seattle area. Plano said the district used to run its own program up through 2008, but due to budget cuts and low participation numbers, the district couldn’t afford to keep it.


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