Buffalo Schools Superintendent James A. Williams rode a yellow school bus earlier this month, and came away feeling sorry for the youngster who was the first to board. The child spent 45 minutes getting to school.
"The kid was asleep," Williams said. "It was ridiculous. When he gets to school, where is the energy?"
Ninety percent of Buffalo's elementary and middle schools students now ride yellow buses to and from school, and Williams says that's far too many.
"I would love to reduce it by 50 percent," he said.
If Williams has his way, substantial reductions in busing -- accompanied by changes in enrollment guidelines -- could be in effect when school opens next September.
Even students who continue to be bused would, in many cases, have shorter rides to schools closer to their homes.
After three decades of extensive busing under enrollment patterns based on school desegregation efforts and then on citywide choice, Williams and several members of the Board of Education envision a re-emphasis on neighborhood schools.
"This is a top priority," Williams said. "The current system is not building family. It's not building community."
Buffalo now has one of the most extensive busing systems in the nation among urban school districts, said John P. Fahey, assistant superintendent for transportation. For example:
*Ninety percent of city students in elementary and middle schools -- or nearly 24,000 youngsters -- took buses to and from school last year. That's an all-time high, and is 15 percentage points higher than it was during the era when "forced busing" was used to desegregate city schools.
*Busing cost the district $46.2 million last year, of which $36.3 million was reimbursed by the state.
*Buffalo's busing system last year served 113 schools, including traditional and charter schools, Catholic elementary schools and schools outside city boundaries. Not a single one of those schools had enrollment boundaries.
*Some pickup points are served by as many as 30 different buses every school day. Students spend a daily average of 48 minutes on school buses, and 627 buses make 2,048 runs per day.
"I think we as a community need to say: 'Does this make sense?' " Fahey said. "We want students to spend time in classrooms, not on buses."
Currently, the "citywide choice" lottery system generally allows families to choose schools throughout the city based on availability and without regard to where a student lives.
While that policy allows families the greatest degree of choice, it has also scattered students throughout Buffalo and weakened the bonds of community, Williams said.
"I think choice is good, but I think we need to modify it," he said. "I think it would be a combination of two things: shorter bus rides and more walkers."
Board of Education President Ralph Hernandez envisions some "balance" between choice and defined enrollment boundaries.
For example, he said, elementary school students might attend neighborhood schools while middle school enrollment might include limited busing. At the same time, high school students would continue to have citywide choice.
The district divided the city into three enrollment districts in 2003-04, and a similar system could emerge again, Williams said.
A return to neighborhood schools would strengthen community ties, increase parental involvement and reduce the need for students to spend time on buses or wait for rides in nasty winter weather, said Samuel L. Radford III, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
"It makes the school a neighborhood building," he said.
Radford relates to the issue on a personal level.
The school he attended was across the street from his home, allowing him to walk to and from school and to go home for lunch.
Following the federal desegregation order, he spent an hour getting to his new school and an hour coming home.
A consultant will present transportation options later this school year.
"I suspect we're going to delve into this real soon," Hernandez said.
Changing enrollment policy is often sensitive and politically charged. That dynamic could be heightened in Buffalo because any change would, in effect, offer less rather than greater choice in selecting schools.
The busing dilemma, in fact, was created largely because so many parents have chosen schools outside their immediate neighborhoods.
"Parents have spoken -- they're looking for more opportunities," Fahey said.
Citywide choice was appropriate when it was established in 2004 because there were broad inequities among different schools, Williams said.
Now, he said, strong and improving schools are available throughout the city because of efforts to increase challenging course work, lengthen the school day and school year, and through the improvement of school buildings and classroom technology through the $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion school reconstruction program.
"The academic rigor is systemwide now," Williams said. "It's not just in a few schools. That's the message we want to get out -- you can attend the Buffalo Public Schools and get a good education."
The reduction of busing is also seen as way to spend more money on instruction and less on transportation.
Fahey said that concern will become more acute if the state, faced with severe budget concerns, considers reducing reimbursement for student busing and local districts are forced to pick up more of the cost.