2018-02-09 / Front Page

School officials study bus GPS

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The board of education last week got its first look at a proposal that would outfit each of Scarborough’s school buses with a GPS unit that would better keep track of maintenance, child safety and give parents a way to track the vehicles to and from school. Three buses in the fleet already have the technology. (Michael Kelley photo) The board of education last week got its first look at a proposal that would outfit each of Scarborough’s school buses with a GPS unit that would better keep track of maintenance, child safety and give parents a way to track the vehicles to and from school. Three buses in the fleet already have the technology. (Michael Kelley photo) GPS is a handy tool that assists the motoring public in getting from one place to another, but school officials argue the technology could also improve school bus transportation in town.

The board of education got its first look at the concept last week that would outfit each bus in Scarborough with a GPS-capable tablet.

Assistant Superintendent Jo Anne Sizemore said school leadership is exploring the topic for a number of reasons, including to better manage bus safety, analyze daily ridership and route efficiency and offer a way for parents and students to know when buses might arrive at bus stops. Since the technology would be on the bus at all times, it could also help parents track buses for athletics and field trips.

Sizemore said a federal mandate is in the pipeline that would require school bus drivers to electronically do child checks to make sure no students are left on the bus at the end of its run, something the GPS would help with.

“It is the driver’s responsibility, at the point, to check and make sure no one is left on the bus. There is a mandate coming, but we don’t know when, that will require electronic devices be installed in each bus to guarantee each driver walks to the end of the bus to press a button,” Transportation Director Sarah Redmond said.

The school district’s three newest buses are already outfitted with the system, which sets off an alarm if not pressed.

School board member Leanne Kazilionis told the Leader a system like that would have saved her and her son heartache years ago. Kazilionis said when her son, now a freshman, was in kindergarten fell asleep on the bus and as a result stayed on the bus one stop too long. He woke up, but was too scared to say something so he hid in his seat until the end of the bus run.

To help with tracking students, two of the GPS models Scarborough has looked into offer cards for the students to swipe as the get on, and off, the bus.

“I can’t imagine little kids remembering to carry the cards every day and swipe it, board member Jackie Perry said.

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said there are ways to get around that. She said at one of her previous school districts students had to swipe cards in the cafeteria and for the younger students, the cards were stored be teachers and handed to students as they headed to lunch.

GPS, Sizemore said, could also streamline daily safety inspections. Under the system in place now, a driver walks the length of the bus fills out a form noting what issues need to be dealt with, gives that information to Redmond, who notifies Scarborough Department of Public Works mechanics. With GPS, that information could be sent directly to the mechanics.

The system, Kazilionis said, could improve vehicle safety by alerting drivers to a mechanical or brake issue, for example, before they come up.

“It’s almost like a black box in the vehicle,” she said.

Sizemore said the system, because it ties into the cellular phone grid, would be impacted by the dead zones that exist in town.

Jennifer Day, the town’s director of information technology said the dead zones on Pine Point Road, Black Point Road, Holmes Road and Gorham Road, to name a few, would be nothing more than an inconvenience for the system. She said the GPS system would disconnect, but would pick back up when cell service is retained.

“Just because something drops from the map for while doesn’t mean the bus is gone,” she said.

Outfitting buses with GPS tablets would require the hiring of a full-time technology dispatcher who would be tasked with overseeing the system and be critical in informing parents, Sizemore said, if, say, a bus breaks down and needs to go to the town garage for service and students are reassigned to a different bus for the afternoon. Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said because of a lack of bus drivers, there is already money in the budget to fund the position.

School leaders have reached out to two vendors that could provide the GPS technology: Traversa by Tyler Technologies, which has offices in Bangor, Falmouth and Yarmouth and Zonar System, of Seattle, Washington. Both company’s technology would provide routing, training, tablet technology, child safety check, mechanical and safety records, although the training for Tyler Technologies would be in person versus via webinar for Zonar. Tyler Technologies’ version of the parent portal, the way parents can track the location of buses, could interface with PowerSchool, the system parents use for grades and other school communication, but Zonar’s version would interface with Transfinder, which the school district has a free version of before sending that information to PowerSchool. Day said her concern with that approach is it would include an extra potential “point of failure.”

Each would come with a three-year contract. Zonar would cost $36,692 in one-time implementation costs in year one, $4,000 for the tablet cart and $6,387 for bus driver and staff training and possibly more for additional Transfinder software. Traversa would require $61,303 in one-time implementation costs, as well as the same tablet and training costs, but no additional software would be needed since it connects to PowerSchool. Kukenberger said the district might be able to negotiate the cost, especially if paid upfront.

To a question for board member Jodi Shea, Redmond said there are several other school districts in the area that have outfitted their bus fleet with GPS, including Bonny Eagle through Zonar and Massabesic through Transversa.

Kazilionis, who works as a business systems analyst at Wex Inc., said her employer could also provide the technology needed for outfitting buses with GPS and brought up that suggestion at the Feb. 1 board meeting.

Kazilionis said she is not advocating for that approach, but only brings it up to offer another possibility for the board.

“Really all I would do is connect the right people,” she told the Leader.

“No matter who the vendor is, this is the right direction for the board,” she said.

The idea is likely to be part of Kukenberger’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, but Sizemore said when the system could be put in place depends on securing the necessary resources and how long it would take to install the system and train staff.

Kazilionis said although the system could be put in place mid school year, she would advocate starting with it at the beginning of a school year.

“For me, as a mother, I would want it day one because it would be easier. It all hinges on when we can get a deal done and the technology because there will be work that needs to be done by the town and the vendor in linking everything up,” she said.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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