Comal County’s population boom is driving a need for more school bus routes.
As Comal Independent School District’s student body continues to swell at unprecedented rates, the district is finding it has a greater need for more bus routes as student ridership reaches new highs, said Jessica Fischer, director of transportation for Comal ISD, during the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee meeting Tuesday morning.
“We have kicked off school, we’re into the second week now,” Fischer said. “The numbers you’re seeing are from last year — we were at 23,218 students on the first day of enrollment last year. We have first day of enrollment this year, 24,398 — so we’re growing rapidly, the secret is out, families are coming.”
Comal ISD is expected to reach its peak enrollment in the next month, Fischer said, despite demographic reports slating that mark to be hit between November and January.
“Also, after the third day we were at 24,758 students and as of yesterday we were about 70 away from our peak number for enrollment,” Fischer said. “We could get the peak in September, based on what keeps rolling in at this point, so they’re coming, and they’re coming quickly.”
The two fastest growing areas seem to be around Smithson Valley and Canyon High School, Fischer said.
“(Canyon Lake) continues to grow, but not near the rate the other two are growing in our district,” Fischer said. “We cover 589 square miles, for those of you who are aware, we go through about 2,200 gallons of fuel per day.”
In the 2017-18 school year, Comal ISD racked up more than 3 million miles in transportation, a number that actually went down in 2018-19 because of two new schools opening and service in tighter zones.
“But the big difference was our student riders jumped from 8,700 to almost 11,000 — so on average, the district has been transporting about 40% of its population — it’s almost up to 45% now,” Fischer said.
A big contributing factor to the increase in the rate of student ridership has to do with more moms working, Fischer said.
“A lot of households are both parents working, so kids are using transportation more as they move into our area,” Fischer said.
As ridership increases, so does the need for more routes, Fischer said.
“This year we have 133 routes, as of yesterday,” Fischer said. “Next week, we’ll probably have 135 to 136 because we’re seeing some areas we’re having to add some routes because of ridership.”
Fleet size actually went down this year, but as the district continues to grow, Fischer said the district is looking to purchase more. A bus can range from $100,000 to $105,000, Fischer said.
“We’ve got 174 of the big buses you see with 71 to 78 passengers, and the newer ones are equipped with that three-point seatbelt, which is in the law now to purchase them that way, so all of our new buses will have that,” Fischer said. “Forty-nine of them are equipped to serve students with disabilities, so they have the special equipment, the car seats, the wheel chair, things like that. All of our buses that are equipped to serve students with disabilities have seat belts, they’re also air conditioned.”
About 30% of Comal ISD buses lack air conditioning, however, Fischer said — something the district hopes to remedy as it replaces buses in the future.
“All our fleet will be working towards getting air conditioning on all those buses,” Fischer said.
Buses are replaced, on average, around every 15 years, however many factors go into deciding when to retire a bus, Fischer said.
“We look at it as a whole, not just, ‘after three years replace it.’ We look at what is the cost of maintaining it, how many miles does it have on it, what’s the actual condition of the bus, not necessarily years,” Fischer said.
Athletics and after school extracurriculars also affect the need for more bus rides, Fischer explained.
“In 2017-18, we did a little over 2,000 athletic-field trips combination, this year in 2018-19 we did 2,500,” Fischer said. “So again, starting to see those numbers increase and we anticipate that to grow even more with Davenport High School opening next year.”
While Davenport’s opening will decrease miles driven temporarily, growth in the Hill Country will counter that, Fischer said.
“Once we build into the Hill Country, where we haven’t had to drive before, those miles start coming back on,” Fischer said.
With about 150 drivers, Comal ISD is still looking for those willing to drive buses, Fischer said.
“We’re probably about nine short at this point and time,” Fischer said. “Average hours are about six a day, some who do eight, some do just five. We are much better off than our counterparts — we’re a really good place to be, and people talk about that, it’s a great district.”