School GPS settles bus-stop disputes in St. Paul

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II
  • Star Tribune
  • October 19, 2010 - 7:52 PM

The St. Paul public schools' transportation department fields dozens of calls a day from parents complaining that the bus never picked up their child. Until recently, it was the bus driver's word against the parent's. That all changed when the district installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device in each of its 300 buses.

And, in some instances, the tracking device has saved drivers from losing their jobs.

The move was not without some controversy. Drivers initially were concerned that the system was too much of a Big Brother approach and that the information would be used against them. But in recent months bus supervisors have relied on the tracking device to negotiate heated disputes between parents and drivers, said Harold Turnquist, transportation director.

The district tested the system for a year with a handful of buses and then decided last year to purchase the product for its entire fleet. The district, which transports an average of 38,000 students daily, contracts with five bus companies.

Officials can track the buses' speed and location as well as the time it waited for a student.

"It gives us a medium to access where the bus is located at all times," Turnquist said. "If we get a parent that says we missed a stop, we know immediately if that's in fact true."

The GPS devices cost around $360 apiece, Turnquist said. That cost, along with a $1,400 per month tracking fee, is folded into the district's contract with the companies, he said.

On a recent morning, transportation coordinator Gary Cox used the program to track a new driver who had gotten lost the day before. When that happens, supervisors are notified so they can get drivers back on track and avoid future problems.

Until recently, they would have to dispatch a supervisor to a bus stop to make sure the bus was making its scheduled stops. That's no longer necessary.

"It's just made the process a ton easier," Cox said.

Cox advises parents to get their child to the bus stop five minutes before the scheduled pickup time and wait until 10 minutes after. That allows for traffic and conflicting time differences.

Cox said he now deals with a new accusation: The GPS system is lying.

Daarel Burnette • 651-735-1695

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