Starting next year, students enrolled in the Bakersfield City School District’s Magnet and GATE education programs will have to hitch their own rides to school.

The district will no longer offer bus service to the 324 kids enrolled in the enrichment programs for gifted and talented students.

Parents received letters Jan. 25 giving them three options: re-enroll students for the following year, but with the caveat that they must provide their own transportation; enroll their student through intradistrict transfer to another school of their choice; or enroll them in the school within their residential boundary.

BCSD administrators say the move, which has been under review by a third-party consultant for about a year, would reduce the number of bus routes, limit the amount of time students spend being shuttled to school and create a uniform bell schedule.

At the core of the decision, however, is this question: should the needs of 324 GATE and Magnet students be prioritized over the other about 9,000 general education students who ride the bus?

The current bus routes are built around GATE and Magnet students, a construct going back to the early 1980s, BCSD Superintendent Harry ‘Doc’ Ervin said. That means those students get priority in busing, and other students take a back seat. Some general education students must board buses as early as 5:55 a.m., Ervin said.

The new system would create more equity among students, Ervin said.

“We’re going to move forward making decisions good for kids, but equity means equity for all — not a few,” Ervin said, stressing that there isn’t another program within the district that alters bus schedules to provide transportation.

Here’s how the routes works: when a bus departs, it picks up a majority of general education students in its route who are attending one school, however if there are GATE students along the route, drivers must alter their path of travel and take those students to their campuses, said Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mark Luque.

As a result, the majority of students are spending an average of 90 minutes on a bus each day. If GATE students were not catered to, the commutes would be shorter, Luque said.

In some cases, there’s just one GATE or Magnet program student on any given bus, but on average, there’s about five on each of the district’s 111 buses, Luque said.

“The reality is, for our district, we have to adjust. The system is not efficient and there needs to be some decisions made in terms of how we can better align,” Luque said. “To sit confined in a bus for a long period of time is not fair to any child.”

The 111 students at Bessie E. Owens Primary and Intermediate schools, which host full-day GATE and Magnet programs, account for 40 pick ups and drop offs each day, Luque said.

Despite the benefits in efficiency the district would gain from altering transportation routes, some parents and union leaders have been critical of the decision.

“There’s some very upset people about this,” Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association President Steve Comstock said. “Ervin thinks every school needs to be on a three-tier bell schedule. I don’t know how that exactly improves academic performance for all the middle schools to have their bells ring at the same time.”

Ervin said one of the major benefits is allowing middle schools and their elementary feeder schools to stay on the same schedule and conduct professional development trainings together.

Other benefits include ensuring that students are consistently picked up and dropped off each day at the same time. Reducing the number of routes decreases variables, and as a result, provides a more consistent schedule, Luque said.

“When a bus is delayed for any reason, it completely throws off the rest that run and those routes,” Luque said. “Beyond that, it’s a constant schedule so we know when kids get to school, they have time to get breakfast, use facilities, get to class on time and then learn during the day.”

The district will finalize transportation routes for the 2018-2019 school year during a meeting next month, after it collects data from parents assessing their needs, Luque said.

Part of what the district is awaiting, Luque said, are responses back from parents who have received letters notifying them of discontinued transportation services.

“We need them to declare what their intentions are, because some parents are declaring busing as a convenience instead of an actual need,” Luque said.

Once the data is analyzed, Luque said, the district will begin assessing where it can re-establish Magnet programs to reduce the distance students must travel for enrichment education. Two school sites that have been identified are McKinley and Fremont elementary schools, Luque said.

“That’s long-term planning we’re doing, but until we have every parents’ response, it’s hard to predict how it will roll out,” Luque said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce