Bus stop students

A First Student bus picks up students on 54th Street West on Jan. 4 morning.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Kasey Cookman gets that roads are snowy and slick, and that traffic is slow around Billings. But she still has a job to get to after her son gets to school. 

Cookman was frustrated again with alternate route busing Wednesday morning while waiting in her vehicle with her son at 54th Street West of Rimrock Road. 

School District 2 and First Student, the company the district contracts for busing, have used a set of alternate bus routes this week and several other days this winter during the snowiest December in 61 years. The alternate routes are an attempt to avoid spots where buses have gotten stuck in the past.

Cookman said Wednesday that buses at the alternate routes had been late before.

"If they ... tell us to be somewhere, they need to be there," she said. 

But delays right now are unavoidable, said SD2 Superintendent Terry Bouck. When Cookman recently drove her son to Arrowhead Elementary thinking it might be quicker than the bus, she encountered an abnormally long 30-minute trip. Buses deal with the same traffic, Bouck said.

“Buses have a pretty prized commodity, our kids, and they’re being very careful on these icy roads,” he said. “Quite frankly, we’re doing the best we can.”

While frigid temperatures persist, officials have recommended that kids not be left exposed to cold.

That creates an extra hassle for parents affected by alternate routes; they take kids to a bus stop, but need to stick around to keep them warm.

And with several buses passing through alternate route stops, it can be confusing about which bus to board. A pair of cars parked at the stop on 54th Street West left before unloading any students after a bus rolled through without pulling over Wednesday. Other buses had previously stopped at the site. 

However, if buses stuck to their regular routes, the chances of getting stuck on unplowed roads would increase, resulting in even longer delays. 

The combination of heavy snow and prolonged cold are unusual in Billings, where snowplowing policies are built around the city's banana-belt-of-Montana reputation.

“Typically in the winter, we get some snow, and typically it melts off,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Lester. 

Billings' current 26-day streak of snow cover isn't too unusual. But the amount of snow cover, combined with longevity, is. 

Since Dec. 11 Billings has had at least five inches of snow cover; that's the ninth-longest streak since records began in 1934. By Friday, it'll be the longest major snow cover streak since 1985. 

Exactly why this has been an unusual year is complicated; a weak La Nina event, cooling of the north Pacific Ocean and less polar sea ice than normal have all contributed to the cold and snow.

With heavy snow arriving in December, it's perfectly timed to stick around during the darkest month of the year. Combined with Billings' policy of not plowing residential streets, it's created busing delays across town. 

Bouck has consistently warned that buses are likely to be 15-30 minutes late in emailed newsletters, whether at alternate or regular routes. As the start of school approached Wednesday morning, traffic traveled between 10 and 15 mph on sections of Rimrock Road. 

Bouck said the district hasn't received emails or phone calls complaining about busing. 

“I would expect if it’s a huge problem I’d be getting all kinds of emails,” he said. “We’re not perfect, but I would give us pretty good marks for what we’re doing in this weather.”

Exactly how much longer the cold and snow will stick around is uncertain. Temperatures are expected to warm in the coming days, but the forecast is "tricky," Lester said, with a boundary of arctic air expected to be near Billings. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.