By Curt Yeomans
Someday, thousands of people who were Clayton County students during the 2010-2011 school year, will be able to tell their grandchildren that when they were in school, they had to walk a mile and a half, to and from, school every day.
That is because Clayton County Public Schools -- in a sudden move, just days before the new school year starts -- announced that it will no longer provide bus transportation to 4,600 students who live within a mile and a half of their schools.
The 2010-2011 school year begins on Monday.
The school district does have an existing policy that says transportation will not be provided to these students, but it has not been enforced in many years, according to district officials.
Last week, School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson sent a letter to parents, announcing the change. In the letter, Jackson said the move is part of the district's budget-reduction plan that was approved by the school board in April.
"The Clayton County Public Schools Budget Reduction Plan for the 2010-2011 school year modifies school bus transportation," Jackson wrote. "The Transportation Plan calls for enforcement of the Board of Education Transportation Policy, which states that transportation will be provided for children, living 1 and 1/2, or more, miles from their assigned school. Students living within 1 and 1/2 miles from their assigned school will not be eligible for transportation, except in areas identified to be hazardous."
In an interview on Thursday, Jackson said enforcing the policy is expected to save $4.26 million, because 35 fewer buses, and 35 fewer drivers will be needed. "When the economy was good to us, we could afford to offer transportation to everyone, but when the economy turned sour, we had to look at ways of cutting spending," Jackson said.
School System Spokesman Charles White said that while the state does re-imburse school systems for transporting most students, there is no re-imbursement for transporting students who live within a mile and a half of their schools. The savings the district will see from cutting the service will be put into classroom instruction, White said.
The odd thing about the school system's budget-reduction plan, which is posted on the district's web site, however, is that it never mentions anything about eliminating transportation for students, based on how far they live from school.
As discussions on budget reductions took place earlier this year, no mention was made about eliminating bus transportation to students who live within a mile and a half of the school they attend. The only cuts to transportation that were discussed were the elimination of transportation for summer school and remediation programs, and home-to-school transportation to school-choice sites, such as the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, and the school system's Fine Arts Magnet High School.
"I think we've got a communication problem here," said Clayton County Board of Education Member Jessie Goree. "It was my understanding the only thing they were cutting was service to special programs ... I had no idea we were [also] going to be eliminating bus service to students who lived within a mile and a half of their schools."
School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson declined to comment on the matter, she said, until she has had a chance to speak with Superintendent Edmond Heatley.
According to Jackson, cutting the bus service to the affected students was included in the district's fiscal year 2011 budget. When asked why officials waited until last week to send a letter to parents, Jackson said employees had to wait until the budget was approved by the school board, and then had to go on furlough.
Jackson was then asked, repeatedly, when school officials knew this would be included in the budget, but did not give a clear answer. At one point, he said the budget-planning process begins early in the school year, but did not give any approximate date. When asked again for a date, he changed topics, and said other school systems in metropolitan Atlanta were already doing this.
According to Clayton Schools spokesman, White, school systems in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry counties, as well as the City of Atlanta already do not provide bus service to students who live within a mile of the school they attend.
Goree said she was getting calls all day Thursday from parents, who were angry that they were not given more notice about the change. The board member said parents should have been notified as soon as the budget was approved, on June 28, two days before district employees went on a six-day furlough.
"If we approved the budget in late June, then we could have sent a message to parents at the end of June," Goree said.
School bus drivers have also been caught off guard by the sudden transportation change. "I just found out about this on Sunday," said one bus driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation by the school system. "Parents are screaming at me about this, and I'm like, 'I didn't know anything about this.'"
The bus driver said there could be several problems caused by the change, between extreme temperatures and students crossing busy streets, including Panhandle Road near Lovejoy; Ga. Hwy. 138 and Ga. Hwy. 54, in Jonesboro; Mt. Zion Road, in Morrow; and Valley Hill Road, in Riverdale.
"It's even more ironic with the pre-K kids, because when we drop them off at their bus stops, a parent has to be there to pick them up,"' the driver said. "If someone else is there to pick them up, we have to have a note from the parent saying it is OK for that person to pick up their child.
"Otherwise, if someone is not there to pick up the child, we can't let them off the bus, but we're going to make them walk a mile and a half to, and from, school every day?"
Jackson said he wants parents to call him, at (770)473-2819, to report any hazards, such as a lack of sidewalks, or railroad tracks, or high-traffic areas, that pose a threat to children walking to school. If the hazards are serious enough, the district may have to transport students in those areas, he said.
The chief operations officer also said the district's area superintendents have been instructed to get their principals to work with parents to create walking groups, so affected students can walk to school together, to reduce the risk of dangers.
Jonesboro Middle School Principal Freda Givens said officials at her school were talking to parents about forming walking groups, during the school's open house, on Thursday afternoon. Givens said she will also do a phone blast to parents, encouraging them to form walking groups.
The principal said her school is concerned that students may not be as safe, if they do not walk in groups. "We're encouraging them to form walking groups, because we want to make sure our students are safe ...," Givens said.