Chuck Wolcott, a school bus driver for Mid Columbia Bus Co., emphatically pointed down to his ankles last week about 90 minutes after delivering many students to the new Central Elementary School.

Wolcott was punctuating his feelings about the new bus pickup and drop-off site on the north end of Central’s campus.

“My stress level is way down. It’s awesome,” the bus driver said.

Wolcott explained he prefers the new bus pick-up site because there is no traffic at the pickup and drop-off location, which is in a bus-only site between Central and La Grande High School. In 2017-18, during the first year of the operation of the Central Elementary School building, the loading and unloading location was on Second Street.

The old site was safe, but Wolcott said it made him nervous because there were many cars and trucks rolling by. The traffic level at last year’s loading site was elevated because it was right next to Central’s main entrance.

“Now there is no pandaemonium (at the new bus loading and unloading site),” Wolcott said. “It is a day and night difference.”

Mid Columbia bus driver Scott Chrusoski is also a big fan of the new bus pickup site.

“It has cut out the other hazards,” he said.

He said he believes it would also be a good place to pick up La Grande High School sports teams.

“I wish it could double as a sports pickup,” Chrusoski said.

Safety at the loading zone, which is adjacent to Central’s playground, is enhanced by a cyclone fence and a highly organized bus boarding process the school has in place. Students wait in lines, organized by destination, on the playground behind the fence waiting for buses to arrive while being supervised by school staff. When a bus arrives, students walk in orderly fashion through a gate and on to their bus.

Central Assistant Principal Chris Wagner said the new system is better than the old one.

“They come in one row at time rather that all at once,” Wagner said.

Mid Columbia bus driver Olie McDougall noted all of the buses coming to pick students up are directly behind each other, “nose to nose,” which prevents children from walking or running between buses.

Central Principal Suzy Mayes is among the educators who regularly supervise students as they wait in line for their bus to arrive. Mayes said she enjoys the experience because it gives her a chance to get to know students during their wait.

“I get a better feel for how things are going for students and it helps build relationships with kids,” she said.

The area on Second Street used in 2017-18 for Central buses is a public right-of-way, where City of La Grande land-use codes state school buses are not allowed to load and unload students. This forced the school district to create a new bus loading zone for Central students.

Bus drivers reach the new zone by turning south off K Avenue and then proceed south about 150 yards before turning east near the high school’s greenhouses and wood shop and traveling about 200 yards east to the loading zone
between Central’s north parking lot and its playground.

Chrusoskie said the route, which the school district has enhanced to support buses, is easy to navigate and there is plenty of room.

The new bus loading and unloading zone is not only safer for students but is also improving the situation in front of Central before and after school, since there are now between 150 and 200 fewer students coming or going in that area.

“There is less congestion all the way around,” said Central media specialist Joe Wing, who helps direct students and parents in front of the school.

Wing also said the situation is much better than it was a year ago when parents and students were learning the traffic and parking rules around the new school.

“Now I’m out here to say hello. I don’t have to tell people what to do anymore,” he said.

Taro Moraga is among the Central parents who believe the situation in front of the school has improved because of the new bus pickup and drop-off site.

“It is better than it was last year. It was more clustered last year,” Moraga said.

He added the situation is also enhanced because the parking spaces the buses used in 2017-18 are now available to parents.

“There are more places to go,” Moraga said.