Why Some NMSD Buses Appear To Run With Few Kids

We occasionally receive some form of the following question: “Why don’t we use small buses out on the peninsula or other remote areas of the district? Some buses seem pretty empty.”

Before a school bus is going to be purchased by the district, we evaluate the needs of the students and the overall district transportation system. Do we have more Special Needs children in the district that need special equipment? Do we need to replace a trip bus with storage? Is the route hard on buses? We also look at what we need on the bus such as sanders for ice and snow or an equipment compartment.

School buses come in three primary categories, Class A, Class C and Class D. The state no longer supports the old Class B buses.

  • Class A buses are the smaller buses used primarily for students with special needs. These buses typically have a wheel chair lift installed and have a capacity of 16 students.

  • Class C buses have a capacity of 60 to 70 elementary students and 50-55 secondary students. This class of bus is a light duty and typically used in city/urban driving and non-hilly areas.

  • Class D buses are a heavy duty that can handle steep road grades, hard terrain, equipment compartments, sanders and other district options that make them safer and more versatile. Class D buses have a seating capacity of 60 to 84 students.

So, why don’t we use smaller buses out on the peninsula? The short answer is that it would actually cost more – much more -- to run the number of smaller buses we would need if we swapped smaller buses for the larger ones.

An Example

Our Black route starts at Maggie Lake, travels the Tahuya River Rd. down to Kay’s Corner, then out to the end of the North Shore road. At the end of this portion of the run, only 21 students are on the bus. However, after the bus turns around at the end of North Shore it goes to Belfair via the detour at Canyon Dr., and another 31 students are picked up on the way into the high school and middle school. So, while on the peninsula the bus has low ridership, over 50 students are picked up on the way to the high school and middle school.

It is also important to note that, even if we only had the 21 kids on the big bus the whole way, we’d have to send two of the smaller buses to complete the route. Two smaller buses are far more expensive to operate and maintain than one large half-full bus. Fortunately, state funding works well for us. The State of Washington funds transportation based on the number of students that ride the bus. Typically, the more students, the more state funding. Because of the rural nature of much of our district, we receive special additional funding for “low load” routes that we would lose if we put too many kids on the bus. The state does this because it recognizes that, to fill a rural bus, the route would have to be over two-hours long each way. That is simply not an acceptable amount of time on the bus.

We also consider the ability of the bus to deal with adverse weather that plagues the upper elevation of the district. The weight of a large bus has a better drivability to deal with snow, water over the road and ice. The bus can also be equipped with safety features such as electric sanders, automatic or manual chains. We do not have enough buses to be able to swap out buses depending on weather.

Lastly, a bus that looks empty may not be empty. State and federal laws have mandated many safety changes over the last several years. One of these changes is higher seat backs that make it difficult to see elementary children in/on the bus. It is not unusual to see an “empty” bus stop and all of a sudden a bunch of elementary kids stand up and climb off.


We hope you find this helpful. We are committed to operating an efficient AND safe transportation system that gets our kids to school ready to learn, then returns them safely home.