Issaquah School District buses to add $40,000 worth of GPS units

December 28, 2010

By Laura Geggel

The Issaquah School District paid for 161 GPS units for its bus fleet, using $40,000 from its capital levy passed by voters in February. By Laura Geggel

Starting in January, Issaquah School District transportation shop mechanics will install 161 GPS units in the district’s bus fleet, a venture costing $40,000 to install and $40,000 annually in upkeep.

The GPS units are financed by the February 2010 capital projects levy that voters passed with 65 percent of the vote. Over the four-year lifetime of the $38.5 million levy, the GPS units and system will cost a total of $200,000.

The GPS units will help transportation shop mechanics coordinate with bus drivers whose buses are having mechanical problems and with parents who have questions about a bus’ location, district Director of Transportation Jo Porter said.

Unlike a TomTom or a Garmin GPS device, the Zonar GPS units the district purchased do not have screens showing bus drivers where to turn. Instead, the Zonar GPS units track a number of other things, including the speed and location of the bus and whether the bus driver put out the crossing paddle before opening the bus door. The GPS units also come with a diagnostic and analytic-software that monitors bus engines.

Without the GPS units, bus drivers are required to stop their buses if they hear a suspicious engine-related noise during a route. About twice a week, mechanics go out into the field to check or fix buses with maintenance issues, Porter said.

Once the GPS units are installed, the driver can simply radio the mechanics, who can then diagnose the problem from the bus barn and determine whether they need to dispatch a mechanic.

The GPS will also help the transportation department give valuable information to parents calling to learn of their child’s location if a bus is running late, as many were during the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm.

“The communication system for our department became saturated with many, many phone inquiries — parents wanted to know where the buses were,” Porter wrote in an e-mail about the snowstorm. “Most bus routes in the afternoon ran late due to the high volume of traffic on the roadways.”

The only way to determine a bus’ location was to ask the driver on the two-way radio, but all bus drivers share the same channel, meaning only one driver could talk at a time. With 161 buses carrying about 9,000 students on 110 squares miles of road, the transportation department had a difficult time tracking down all of its vehicles.

“If more than one person tries to talk on the radio at one time, you can’t understand it,” bus driver Clayton Smith said.

Once the GPS devices are installed, transportation workers will be able to identify where buses are at all times of the day. The software will show mechanics a map of the district and the location of each bus, with a Doppler radar superimposed on the map, Zonar spokesman Kyle Bruny said.

“Knowing the location and status of the buses, drivers and passengers is the heart of any pupil transportation operation,” Porter said.

The GPS system also tracks the best route available, and though the district already has software that analyzes routes, Porter said having two best-route programs would help the district pinpoint the best way to drive students to and from school.

Is it worth it?

Although costly, the GPS system might pay for itself.

“Dispatch will be able to answer bus location inquires faster and accurately,” Porter wrote. “GPS will offer ways to review routes, idle time and enhance ways to save fuel consumption and reduce bus emissions.”

The district can set a timer, programming the GPS to notify it if a bus idles for more than, say, one minute, Bruny said.

Money saved by the system will go directly into the classroom, district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said.

But the cost has some questioning whether the system is worth its price.

“We’ll have to see,” Smith said. “I think it’s a lot of money, but there are definitely benefits.”

Driver Don Janus said he was on both sides of the fence.

“I think it’s going to be a good tool,” he said. “We’ll be able to find a bus if it’s lost.”

But, “there won’t be anything on the bus that can help the driver,” he said, talking about the lack of electronic GPS maps. “I think it’s something I would like to see on the bus. It would be nice for subs.”

In the future, the district might purchase ZPass, an accompanying program that tracks students as they enter and exit the bus.

“Knowing if and when a student got on or off the bus accounts for a significant portion of calls parents make to schools or the transportation department,” Porter wrote.

The Olympia School District is running a pilot ZPass program, and about 4,000 buses in 40 districts are using ZPass technology now, Porter wrote.

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

Bookmark and Share
Other Stories of Interest: , , , , ,


9 Responses to “Issaquah School District buses to add $40,000 worth of GPS units”

  1. Kay Schmidt on December 29th, 2010 2:08 am

    This is a waste of taxpayers money. Very little benefit at such a high cost. In the two or three times per year that we have snow, the drivers can take 1 minute to text from their cell phones to let the barn know where they are on the route if necessary.

  2. bruce richards on December 29th, 2010 8:40 am

    Its a waste,if a bus breaks down cannot the driver use thier cell to call in their location?Every kid has one to borrow.And where does a parent think their kids bus is if its not at the school or at the bus stop?Its on the way,relax and stop worrying.

  3. Doug Lemke on December 29th, 2010 9:35 am

    Sounds like just a way to monitor the bus drivers every move. Just another example in a long line of wasted tax payer money. $40K a year to upkeep ! really? what a joke. I wonder if levy’s would pass if everyone knew the details before voting.

  4. Michael Dipdoe on December 29th, 2010 12:13 pm

    Really, we are topping out our Teachers pay at $35k for all the “parenting” they do for your kids every day, and this is where the funds are being spent. Sounds like the Issaquah School district is in need of re-evaluating where the money should be spent. How many other districts in the state have this technology? dont they have to propose an spending an returns analysis before they make these proposterous decisions? If they were in any other business they would all be fired for misallocation of spending.
    I would bet UPS or Fedex doesnt even have this technology and the success of their business is solely based on where and when their drivers deliver packages. Why do we let them spend our money this way?

  5. ISD Parent on December 29th, 2010 12:14 pm

    The ISD puts 12 year old kids on buses with 18 year old high school seniors (all IMS students are bussed with IHS kids) to save transportation money and then they waste $200,000 like this? Do what’s right for the kids for a change!

  6. Doug on December 29th, 2010 4:51 pm

    They’re spending $40,000 a year to save the $1500 it would cost in gasoline to respond on those road assists 104 times a year? Let’s hope these “thinkers” weren’t taught in the ISD.

  7. Ryan James on December 30th, 2010 6:22 am

    Shame on every one of you for condemning this investment with no thought as to the possible benefits.

    “Whaa Whaa Whaa” is all I hear from everyone of you.
    $400k over 4 years for 9,000 students riding the bus is only $11/student./year.

    Stop being so cynical and look into how this is for the best for the kids and for the community.

    Do I know for a fact that it IS the best thing? No, not at all. But the times I’ve dealt with the school division, I’ve found them all to be helpful and caring, so I’m sure they wouldn’t just throw the money away.

  8. Iss Parent on December 30th, 2010 9:54 am

    I agree with many comments here about the poor judgement behind this expenditure. Before a dime is spent on stuff like this, how about SEATBELTS on those buses. My child rides them every day and I have to say I fear for his safety.

    Frankly, every other private and public vehicle is mandated to have seat belts, so why not the buses that transport our kids?

    GPS units? Why not just light the dollar bills on fire? Really!

  9. Steve on January 3rd, 2011 10:52 am

    Three lines from the article:

    – Is it worth it?
    – Although costly, the GPS system might pay for itself.
    – But the cost has some questioning whether the system is worth its price.

    If there has been any past record-keeping at all, how can there be no solid cost/benefit expectations? How can this expenditure be authorized without a study of those records to project the exact value to the taxpayer? This wouldn’t take a $4,000,000 SE Bypass study — someone could whip through the logs in a week and create a decent projection.

    A business entity would implode in short time if it was run this way.

Got something to say?

Before you comment, please note:

  • These comments are moderated.
  • Comments should be relevant to the topic at hand and contribute to its discussion.
  • Personal attacks and/or excessive profanity will not be tolerated and such comments will not be approved.
  • This is not your personal chat room or forum, so please stay on topic.