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It's a busy time in the bus garage

There is a giant puzzle, not quite finished, on a table in the offices of Marshall Lines. It is a fitting analogy for what life is like these days at the company, which provides bus service for the Farmington School District. With just a week to go before the start of school, the company is putting the finishing touches on the routes that will get students to school and home for the next nine months.

This is the 11th year Tom Severson has been in charge of making sure everything comes together in Farmington. He took a few minutes out of a busy schedule Tuesday to talk to us about route planning, Wite-Out and making sure all of Farmington's students get home.

Does putting all of this together get any easier?

It should. It should get easier, but it seems like every year there's different things that go on and each year has its own set of challenges.... This would be our fourth year that we've had the automated system in place for assisting with our routing. The Versatrans system that houses our student database that assists us with our routing. Otherwise, before that, we were 100 percent manual.

Just a big map and a marker?

Huge maps and then individual maps for every single area we served, and putting all the combinations together and marking the maps with each student or sets of students.

I suppose when you're doing that there's a lot of crossing routes out and starting over.

We used a lot of Wite-Out back in those days. that was back in those days when you had the liquid Wite-Out and not the nice roll tape Wite-Out that they have now. Now you make a mistake or you need to do something different, you do it on the computer and print it out. But we still go through a lot of paper.

There are probably a lot of changes as schools call and say, "Oh, we've got one more."

Yeah. Those are the dynamics that we're in. There's a lot of those last-minute parents. The ones that get their kids registered last second. We're right up to the day, seemingly, making changes. This year in the Farmington district they expanded a couple of the walk zones. Some of the areas that were otherwise being bused are now walking areas and those folks have an opportunity to pay per ride.... We're still getting some of those kids and working with those kids.

Have you gotten a fair number of the pay-to-ride kids?

I think we're up to, just to hazard a guess, 25.... It adds time and it impacts all the other kids.

Do you have numbers for how long it takes to get a kid on the bus and sitting down?

I think the system automatically allows 45 seconds for each front end of the stop, 45 seconds for every startup of that stop. So about a minute and a half for that stop plus each kid adds 15 seconds onto it.

You've gotta get those kids moving.

You do gotta get those kids moving. And that's why sometimes with these drivers they will have assigned seats. They will do front-to-back loading or different creative ways when they're trying to get those kids all seated. When you're dealing with an elementary route and a 77-passenger bus and you might have 72, 73 kids on there and each kid trying to reserve a seat for their buddy that might not get on for three stops down the road and you've got first graders, second graders trying to sit down, the drivers are constantly working with the kids to try to get them to allow kids to sit with them. They pack them in there.

How many buses, how many routes are we talking about?

Right now we're running 34 big buses. Some of them only run one tier, like a single school. Our high school, country buses we send out there, those buses don't work well with other routes because of the time it takes to send those buses out there.... Pretty much every other bus on the road has either two tiers or three tiers. So, our middle school routes, they'll go out and pick up the middle school kids and there's 21 of those buses doing that, dropping off kids at the two different middle schools. Then they'll go on to an elementary run and then in some cases those buses go onto a second elementary run.

That's a lot to keep track of.

It is a lot to keep track of. I think we're somewhere in the 6,300 range (for enrollment) and we have about 5,900 of those kids assigned to school buses.

Do you enjoy that, or does it get to be a little overwhelming this time of year?

Those first couple days of school you have to have a short memory, and it's hard. They're long days. Our days right now, a lot of my staff, myself, they're 12 hour days leading into the school year and then you get into Labor Day and we always kid around that Labor Day in our business is a work day, not a day of rest.... Those first couple days of school are trying.... The morning time goes pretty good because you're either at the stop or you're not. In the afternoon we're very dependent on the school administrators and teachers getting the kids, especially those kindergarten, first grade, second grade kids, placed on the buses in as efficient a way as we can. But it's amazing how many end up on the wrong buses. We have several kids the first couple days of school that end up with a lot longer ride than they otherwise would have. We always find them, but it is a very time-consuming effort to find every kid who might have been placed on the wrong bus and determine how we're going to get them back to their house. We actually place several buses out there, strategically placed out in the district, and those buses and drivers will go and meet with the other buses and pull kids out and help those drivers out so they can get on to their next school.... Certainly by the second week of school, by that Monday, everything is settled down and settled in.

You've got a week before the first day of school now. Are you ready to go?

We're pretty prepared. Our drivers are all coming in yesterday and today. They were all required to come in and get their respective routes, review the route, go out there, dry run the routes and find out where all the stops are. Find out any circumstances that might hinder their ability to perform their route on Tuesday. If there's some road construction or something they're not aware of. We look at some of the areas like where the tornado hit a couple weeks ago and we know there's construction that goes on in those areas. It's amazing what roads get blocked at a certain times.... It's those little quirks that go on and we want our drivers to find those quirks this week.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

(651) 460-6606