BROOKSVILLE — Only three days into the school year, a kindergartner from Brooksville Elementary School walked off his bus at the wrong stop and briefly went missing, triggering a frantic search and sheer panic for his family.
While the boy eventually arrived home safely, the incident resonated with district officials. Shortly afterward, district transportation director Doug Compton and Hernando superintendent Lori Romano met to address what could be done to prevent the mistake from reoccurring.
Turns out, the district already had been investigating one option: student tracking.
At Tuesday afternoon's Hernando County School Board workshop, Compton will present a proposal that would allow the district to track or locate school buses and students in real time, with the help of Global Positioning System devices. The computerized system would also allow parents, through an online portal, to track student ridership; they could receive email alerts when students get on or depart the bus. The program also notifies parents or guardians how far a bus is from a stop, theoretically making pickups and drop-offs more efficient.
"We think that the student tracking piece is vital," Compton said.
How does it work?
Students would each be given a card to carry. They would swipe the card when they got on and off the bus, registering the information and telling the driver if the student is supposed to get on or off at a particular location, Compton said. Bus drivers would be able to manually enter student information if a card stops working.
The cards themselves are not GPS devices and couldn't be tracked; they only tell where and when a student gets on or off the bus.
"We will be able to know immediately if that student is supposed to be on or off the bus," Compton said.
According to Synovia Solutions, the Indianapolis-based company selling the transportation-management package, the district could see which students have boarded or exited a bus, whether they were dropped off at their assigned stops and how many students are on a bus at a certain time.
Synovia chief executive Jon King said the package also provides a layer of security and convenience in inclement weather.
King said his company operates across the United States and Canada and has roughly 450 to 500 customers, which include school districts. There are about a dozen school districts in Florida using Synovia products, including Hillsborough and Pinellas.
Compton said the package will cost $3,500 for the first year of a five-year plan, including roughly $3,000 for cards and $500 for data. During Year 1, there is no cost for the equipment, installation or training, Compton said.
After that, the price goes up substantially.
Compton said that, after the first year, the program will cost $70,000 per year, but the district has the right to terminate it each year without penalty.
He said the first year essentially would function as a test run and give the district answers to some important questions.
"Does it do what it says it does? Does the student tracking work?" Compton asked. "It gives us some real-time data for our district."
He said the price after the first year is high, but if the product works as advertised it might be worth it.
"Student safety is the No. 1 thing for us," he said.
Aside from student and bus tracking, the program offers a number of other features that could make the transportation department run more smoothly and efficiently.
Compton said it provides engine diagnostics while the bus is in use. He said, for example, the devices would send alerts of engine fault codes to the garage, allowing for more timely repairs. It also has a tool that would enable the district to compare the expected route to the actual one, making sure drivers arrive and depart from stops on time and follow the proper path.
King said that transportation officials basically can know how each driver is driving — whether someone is speeding, deploying the stop arm and flashers properly, and whether the driver is on the correct side of the street at a certain stop.
"There's a whole group of areas that … (ensure) the driver is operating the vehicle safely and within the guidelines that have been set out," he said.
Pinellas began using GPS in its school buses about three years ago in an effort to eliminate the district's manual process of comparing planned routes with actual routes, more easily locate a bus and respond more quickly to any situations involving buses.
With the system, Pinellas transportation officials report, they are able to capture excessive bus idling, leading to greater efficiency.
While the system promises a lot, there are critics.
In Hillsborough County, many bus drivers have come forward and complained that the GPS system is unreliable and sometimes is unable to locate buses in times of need.
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected].