By Mike Archer, School Bus Consultant
The debate over later school start times is best characterized as one where opposing groups both believe they have the community's best interest in mind, despite being on opposite sides of the same issue. We often talk past each other in the interest of supporting our particular point of view while failing to recognize the common interest in what we are trying to achieve. Transportation, or more specifically the cost of transportation, is one of the more contentious issues in this debate.
So, the question is, how do we design a process for acknowledging, and then managing the complexities of the transportation question without losing perspective on the common educational goals underlying the proposed change? We believe the answer lies in a diagnostic process that is focused on identifying actual constraints and then evaluating key variables in a systematic methodology. Only in this way can all stakeholders see their concerns being identified, considered, and balanced with others to determine the best possible result for the community.
Trading up, trading down, and trading off
School start time discussions are contentious because resources are limited. It is rarely possible to achieve everything that disparate stakeholders want. Consequently, school districts must balance the educational benefits identified in the sleep research with the possible transportation cost and service changes that may be required to support the change. The analysis necessary to properly evaluate these tradeoffs must begin with ensuring that the analyst is unbiased as to the issue itself. Ensuring analytical neutrality prevents any confirmation bias from being injected into the identification and evaluation of options, of which there are always many.
The considerations that go into any transportation network design are numerous, interrelated, and complicated. The analysis must consider, and stakeholders must understand, the difference between fixed constraints and changeable variables. This designation is of vital importance to the analysis for two reasons:
When establishing the set of fixed constraints, districts must start by narrowing this definition to the greatest extent possible in order to facilitate the largest range of potential solutions. This begins with physical barriers such as roadway design, mountains, lakes, or other fixed barriers to efficient network design.
But there are also policy-based constraints, such as distance-based eligibility for service, or maximum allowable ride times. These can be imposed on the district, such as state-level statutory or regulatory requirements, or can be locally determined by the district’s governing board. In either case, the district must determine what will be an actual fixed constraint in the analysis, and what can be considered for change. The more that is considered fixed, the more straight-forward becomes the analysis. But the more that is considered variable, the larger the range of potential solutions.
The consideration of variables can include a broad range of factors. At the highest level, variables are the baseline policies mentioned above that, coupled with geographic and demographic factors, largely determine the baseline efficiency of the transportation network. Service eligibility, walk to stop distance, ride time expectations, and bus arrival and departure times all represent examples of policy-level factors that can be manipulated to develop alternative transportation solutions in support of the school start time scenarios. To the extent that these baseline parameters are altered in the analysis, it is critical to ensure that the increase or decrease to service levels are quantifiable, otherwise a fair comparison to the current baseline becomes nearly impossible. Consequently, districts should consider using a tiered set of variables where baseline policies are not considered for change, thus making a more direct comparison to existing operations more feasible. If, after these initial options are considered, changes to baseline policies are desired to improve the results, then altering one at a time while holding all others fixed will allow for a rational understanding that impact of each factor has on the results. This approach can be more readily utilized to determine whether it would be appropriate to revise the baseline criteria to achieve greater consensus, or to increase the efficiency or effectiveness of the solution.
The rubber meeting the road
In many cases, stakeholders are able to agree fairly readily on the constraints, variables, and analytical processes that will be used to assess the options available. Even in these cases, however, the biggest challenge arises in the evaluation of the results, and the process whereby consensus is achieved and a decision reached to move forward. This is somewhat paradoxical. If we have agreed on everything that goes into the analysis, why can we not agree on whether or not we like the results? The answer, quite simply, is because compromise is the inevitable result of any constrained optimization problem. To assist in reaching a consensus solution, it is critical heading into the process to remember certain key aspects of the financial and operational solutions to be presented: First, transportation cost and service quality implications will be an outcome of, not an input to, the process. They are a result of the optimization analysis and should never be considered as a barrier to moving forward. There is always a cost-neutral solution. With this as the baseline understanding, the transportation analysis can be more readily “fitted” into the overall decision-making process. Transportation is not the only big issue to be considered, and understanding that the transportation solution can provide anything desired, it just can’t provide everything desired, defuses this as the only issue standing in the way of the desired change.
The need to consider transportation as an outcome and not an input is a key philosophical element in the overall process, but not the only one. Ultimately schools and school districts are in the business of education. Transportation service is just one of the tools used to make that business successful. All too often, transportation is seen to be the “thing” enabling or preventing school time changes. The same weight is rarely given to changes in custodial schedules or teacher schedules or other critical inputs despite the fact that they may have a far more material impact on the total cost of district operations or the quality of the education services received. While this point of view may sound unusual coming from transportation-oriented stakeholders, we understand how imperative it is for the relative importance of transportation be deescalated and placed in a proper framework along with all of the other potential impacts to district and school operations from school start time changes.
Finally, and only once properly framed, can the cost of transportation be appropriately contextualized. More often than not, the cost of services is spoken and written about in absolute rather than relative terms. For example, if a change in school start times costs a district $6 million, is that good or bad? This is highly dependent on where you are starting from. An operation that currently costs $60 million would see this result very differently than an operation that costs $3 million. Unfortunately, this critical context is often not provided and the informed public becomes anchored on a number that may “feel” high or low. All changes to costs or service levels should be considered as an incremental change to their existing levels in order to properly contextualize the results.
School start time changes can run smoothly. Creating a process that properly frames the analysis, recognizes that at least one party is likely to have a status quo bias and experience loss aversion, and frames the results to best explain the incremental impacts of the change, is more likely to be perceived as satisfactory even if it doesn’t agree with a particular stakeholder’s default world view. A rigorous and robust process that accounts for these concerns requires a commitment of adequate time and resources, but in the end, it is worth the effort.
Mike Archer is a School Bus Consultant for the TransPar Group of Companies. He has provided consulting services to districts across the United States and Canada focusing on service efficiency and effectiveness. He has worked with school districts in all aspects of routing and scheduling including modeling bell time change impacts, identifying routing efficiency opportunities, and assessing the feasibility of service level improvements through revisions to the routing scheme. Mike served as the route development specialist for a large suburban district where he managed 150 buses and 750 bus routes that provided service to more than 10,000 students. Mike has also worked extensively in the areas of policy analysis and operational assessments targeted at improving transportation performance. Mike holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from Penn State University.