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Private transportation provider could replace school bus in Big Cottonwood Canyon

FILE - A school bus from Butler Elementary School drops children off along Big Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The Canyons Board of Education voted late Tuesday to direct school administrators to explore entering a cont
FILE - A school bus from Butler Elementary School drops children off along Big Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The Canyons Board of Education voted late Tuesday to direct school administrators to explore entering a contract with a private transportation provider to serve schoolchildren in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

SANDY — The Canyons Board of Education voted late Tuesday to direct school administrators to explore entering a contract with a private transportation provider to serve schoolchildren in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

It was the fourth time the board had discussed the issue. The administration recommended in April that the board end the service in the face of growing safety concerns and dwindling ridership.

According to the district's numbers for May and June, the highest ridership was 12 students, with most days three or four children riding the bus. On May 30, no children rode the bus coming or going.

The bus route traverses a road that an engineering consultant to the Utah State Division of Risk Management described in a letter to the school district as "unsafe for bus travel" because of its steep grades, curves, lack of guard rails, narrowness and increased use by hikers and bicyclists.

Board member Steve Wrigley said parents need to be able to work, but the school district needs kids to get to school, whether that means contracting with a private provider or the district purchasing a large sport-utility vehicle.

According to a school district memo, Canyons Transportation charges $180 round trip to serve the canyon, which would be approximately $38,000 annually.

Canyons School District | Aaron Thorup, Canyons School District

Board member Mont Millerberg said impacts on families are his greatest concern. A change would cut into family time and be a great inconvenience for them, he said.

The parents are unified in continuing the bus service, he said. No one has stepped forward asking to be paid the IRS rate for reimbursement to transport their own children.

"At this point in time I'm opposed to eliminating the bus route," Millerberg said.

Board member Clareen Arnold questioned whether the school district might face enhanced liability after a state risk management official notified it of the risks.

Board President Sherill Taylor said he is intrigued by the idea of running a classroom in the canyon, which would be safer than "transporting them back and forth."

Superintendent James Briscoe said the school district could consider the option, but "it would be hard to make a commitment for next fall."

Deborah Myers, whose daughter attends Butler Elementary School, said the school district has provided bus service for decades, both as Jordan School District and now eight years as Canyons School District.

"We're not looking for something new. We're just trying to fight for what we already have," she said.

Parents who live in canyon work at ski resorts, are professionals who work in the Salt Lake Valley or own businesses and rely on the bus to get their children to and from school.

"None of these people are sitting at home eating bonbons waiting to drive their children to school," Myers said.

Ending her remarks to the board, Myers took note of the school district's name.

"It is the Canyons School District so I would like to see you continue to serve your canyons," she said.

Tom Fendler, who lives Big Cottonwood Canyon and whose children ride the bus, took issue with the risk management letter because it refers to a probability of a bad outcome, but "there's nothing to support or evaluate that condition."

"There's no data. There's no references or technical documents. It doesn't evaluate any other alternatives," Fendler said.

"It’s like saying a student is failing and not providing grades. You can't evaluate a statement like that unless there's something to back it up," he said.

Brighton High School student Kamiya Peterson, who is entering her senior year, said she has ridden the Big Cottonwood Canyon bus since kindergarten.

"I have never felt unsafe on the bus. Now being a new driver, I actually prefer riding the bus in the winter season because I don't have experience driving in the winter and know the (bus) drivers do, and I can be safe riding the bus instead of driving myself," she said.

If the bus service is lost, Peterson will be responsible for driving her brother, a seventh-grader, to school because their mother works.

According to a recent school district memorandum, purchasing a smaller, rear-wheel drive bus with chains would cost $80,000 to $112,000. To buy an eight-person Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition would cost about $50,600.

While the Utah Transit Authority does not offer contract busing, students could ride UTA buses that serve the ski resorts from early December through mid-April.

Reimbursing mileage for 10 parents to provide transportation themselves would cost about $29,000 a year.

The school district rents a small classroom at Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon for $2,000 per month and pays the salaries and benefits, approximately $80,000, of a teacher. Enrollment varies from five to 15 students in grades K-8.

"This is an option if space can be leased," the memo says.