Thanks to final contract approval from the Buncombe County Board of Education on March 2, the school district is hoping that new “smart bus” technology will provide parents Uber-like bus tracking and notifications that their children boarded the buses. The technology also will help the district create more efficient bus routes.
School board members voted unanimously to approve a sole-source procurement agreement with Education Logistics Inc., a Montana-based corporation, to implement technology recommended through the School Bus Safety Pilot Program, which will include GPS tracking of school buses, onboard cameras and an accompanying app for parents. The move follows a contract approval with the company in December.
The state program, which launched in spring 2021 at the Mount Airy City Schools district (located north of Charlotte and funded through in House Bill 1105,) was created during the pandemic to track COVID-19 infections. Jeremy Stowe, the Buncombe County Schools’ transportation director, said buses will be equipped with an onboard tablet that monitors employee hours, provides updated routes to drivers and records each time a student boards or exits the vehicle. The tablet also will notify parents of route changes, delays and other information.
“Essentially, it’ll be a modernization of our transportation fleet,” Stowe explained during the meeting. “Parents will be able to log into a parent app to track in real time where their child is.”
Buncombe County Schools was awarded a $1.3 million Smart School Bus Safety Pilot state grant, which will cover the cost of the $386,534 three-year contract. Stowe said his department asked that Education Logistics be the sole source provider because the school system already uses the company for other technology needs.
Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, Stowe said the first step for the school system will be installing GPS on the buses. The transportation department will analyze the routes for efficiency adjustments and begin the groundwork for the parent app.
“The goal for the parent app to be off the ground and in the parents’ hands is the first day of the 2023-24 school year,” he explains. “It is too early in this process to promise this, but that is the goal.”
Stowe added that the new technology will augment the work of existing employees as the district continues to struggle with a shortage of bus drivers. The school system currently has 220 buses carrying 11,000 students that travel a total of 15,000 miles per day. The district currently has 15 bus driver positions open.
“We know that we have a finite resource with regards to drivers and employees,” Stowe said during the meeting. “My end goal with this program is to be able to look at some gaps that we may have with regards to staffing and schedules so that maybe we can, in a smart bus manner, layer our start and end times so that we could maximize our existing employees with the students that need to have transportation home in a reliable fashion.”
“I feel so good about our transportation system. This upgrade is going to be wonderful,” said board member Kim Plemmons before the vote. “Hopefully parents will feel like their kids are very, very safe riding our buses.”