A new transportation plan for Seattle Public Schools is saving money but causing headaches for parents, who are complaining their children must walk longer to bus stops and wait longer for buses.

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The first time the bus assigned to take her third-grade daughter to Alki Elementary School arrived late, Myrtle Griffiths wrote it off as an inevitable first-week-of-school annoyance.

But the late arrivals continued, and after almost a month of consistently waiting with her daughter for between 20 and 40 minutes every day, Griffiths decided to start driving her daughter to school.

“We have registered sex offenders within walking distance of our stop,” she said.

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“I don’t want my daughter standing out there.”

Griffiths is among many Seattle Public Schools parents who are frustrated with the district’s new transportation plan.

The plan is saving money and, in some cases, shortening bus rides. But it’s also causing hundreds of students to walk farther to bus stops, others to wait longer at the stops, and some to find their way to school on their own.

Adopted in February, the plan aimed to save $4 million this school year by taking 80 yellow buses off the road — one-fifth of the fleet.

To manage with fewer buses, the district cut off bus service to 300 students attending school far away from their homes, established centralized bus stops that pick up many kids at once, and staggered school start times so bus drivers could complete three different routes each morning and afternoon.

Other local school districts are also scaling back transportation plans due to budget cuts.

Seattle is cutting bus service deeper, however, because it is transitioning to a neighborhood-based assignment system in which students are essentially guaranteed placement in the school closest to their home.

In the previous system, it was common for parents to send their children to schools throughout the district, necessitating more bus service.

In Seattle, 43 fewer buses are in use this year and more will be removed next semester, said Tom Bishop, the district’s transportation director.

While bus issues always anger some parents at the beginning of the school year when kinks in routes and schedules are being worked out, this year appears to be worse than usual. Calls to the district’s transportation complaint hotline increased by 16 percent — from 9,500 to 11,000 — in the first two weeks of the school year, Bishop said.

District officials say the inconvenience is worthwhile because of the budget savings.

“It’s just one of those things,” School Board member Peter Maier said. “If I have a choice between putting money into the classroom and putting money into transportation, I would prefer to put money into the classroom, because they’re not learning on the bus.”

But Duggan Harman, the district’s executive director of finance, said he is concerned that the projected $4 million in savings may not be reached. His office is analyzing the issue, with a report expected next month.

Simpler transportation plans

Most other school districts in the Puget Sound area, including Issaquah, Edmonds and Federal Way, have simpler transportation plans, mostly just providing bus service to all students who live more than a mile away from school or who must cross a major street to get there.

Seattle is also one of the few local districts to ask its bus drivers to do multiple routes every morning and afternoon.

Parents have complained that the practice, expanded by the new transportation plan, causes buses to consistently arrive late to stops on their third route of the morning or afternoon.

ElDoris Turner, the principal of Van Asselt Elementary School, acknowledged that the buses are running later than usual this year. But she said it wasn’t sure if it was due to the staggering or traffic issues.

“It does come late and that’s annoying sometimes,” she said. “But at least our kids get here and the transportation department works with us.”

Lisa Newcomb has a more negative view on the new plan.

She said that last year the bus that took her son to the Lowell Elementary advanced-placement program in Wallingford stopped — usually on time — around the corner from his house. This year, his stop is significantly farther away and the bus is often late.

“The bus stop is a mile away, which is not ideal,” Newcomb said. “But I’m willing to accept that as a compromise if they were on time and if he didn’t have to stand for 15 minutes waiting for his bus. It just seems inhumane to me to have an 8-year-old standing outside for 15 minutes.”

Another Lowell parent, Shannon Adams, said that this year she became so frustrated with the “broken system” that she decided to drive her 5th-grader to school every day.

Adams may not be alone: The percent of district students using the bus service decreased by half a percent this year, according to an analysis of numbers recently released by the district.

Improvement seen

Bishop acknowledged that there have been problems, but said the situation improves every day.

Overall, the plan is working, Bishop said. He pointed out that almost all of the families experiencing hardships chose to attend a school other than the one closest to their home, despite the new assignment system.

Lauren McGuire, the president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said she hasn’t heard an unusually high number of complaints from other parents. Most have accepted the annoyances because of its cost savings, she said.

“This is the reality of the budget situation,” she said. “This is saving millions of dollars and some kids have to walk a little further.”

The reality of the state budget may force more cuts to transportation in the near future, officials acknowledge.

A budget proposal released late last month by Gov. Chris Gregoire noted that eliminating state funding for school-bus transportation is an option that could save $220 million, although the governor did not propose taking that step.

In Seattle, the district may have to look at further transportation cuts, officials said.

“It would be a very difficult decision,” said Harman, the district’s executive director of finance. “But there are no easy decisions left.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com

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