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Clayton BOE to 're-think' student bus policy

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The policy that has allowed Clayton County Public Schools officials to cut bus transportation to 4,600 students, is going to be brought under scrutiny by the county's school board, on Monday.

Just days before the 2010-2011 school year began, parents of many students received a letter from School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson, informing them that the school system was not going to provide bus transportation to any student who lives within a mile and a half, of his, or her school.

The sudden change was a previously unannounced part of the budget cuts made to avoid the district going into debt, according to the letter. It resulted in many outraged parents calling school board members and district officials to complain.

Now, the school board is scheduled to review the policy, and possibly discuss changing it, at the board's work session, on Monday, according to Board Member Jessie Goree. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, at 6 p.m., at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex, at 1058 Fifth Ave., in Jonesboro.

Goree is scheduled to lead the discussion, according to the agenda for the meeting.

"I would just like the board to re-think the policy, and look at it, and see if we need to change it," Goree said. "I think we've all been getting calls from parents about this."

Changing the policy, which is officially called Policy ED, could be a major reversal for the school system after only two weeks of it being enforced. The policy dates back to 1981, but school system officials have said it has not been enforced in several years.

When it was first publicized that the policy was going to be enforced this year, some school board members initially said they were caught off guard by the decision, and seemed to be unaware that the shift to enforcement of the policy was a part of the district's budget-reduction plan that they had adopted in April.

No mention of enforcing the policy had been made during any public discussions on the budget. Since then, Goree and Chief Operations Officer Jackson have reported getting many angry phone calls from parents. On Friday, Goree said she received so many calls about the issue one day this week, that her school system-provided cell phone's battery died. "At one point, my school system cell, my personal cell, and my home phone were all ringing at the same time," she said.

Goree said the issue now includes a problem with traffic backups around several schools because more parents are driving their children to school.

"Some schools have separate lanes for the cars, and school buses, but the older schools have only one lane for buses and cars," Goree said. "I'm not sure we thought about that before we decided to enforce this policy. I've gotten calls from parents, who are telling me they have to wait in a line of cars for 20 minutes just to get to the school, and some of the children ended up being marked tardy."

School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said she does not know, yet, if she will support a policy change to reduce the distance students have to walk. "I want to look at the policy, as well as what state law says on the matter," she said.

"Other districts are already doing this," she said. "With us finally having an experienced superintendent, we have someone who is experienced enough to look into our budget, and make the cuts we need to make, to retain our quality, certified teachers. Transportation was one of those areas we had to cut ..."

When asked about the possibility of a policy change, on Friday, Chief Operations Officer Jackson said: "That will be the prerogative of the board." He also raised questions about what re-instating the bus service would do to the district's budget. "If you re-instate this, then, what are you going to cut to make up for it?" Jackson said. Enforcement of the policy was expected to save the district $4.26 million.

Georgia Department of Education officials have said the department re-imburses local school systems for student transportation, except when the pupils live within a mile and a half of the schools they attend.

Jackson is also scheduled to make a presentation on the transportation issue, to the school board on Monday. Another item on the agenda is an update by Superintendent Edmond Heatley, on the situation at Lewis Academy of Excellence, whose original, five-year charter expired last month. The school needs a new charter to be approved soon, by both the school system and the Georgia Department of Education, to open for the 2010-2011 school year.

The school system has been reviewing a new charter petition for Lewis Academy. School District Spokesman Charles White said Heatley has not shared, even with his own cabinet, his plans for dealing with the school. The superintendent could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Other items scheduled to be discussed at the board meeting include: academic achievement data; enrollment updates; the uniform dress policy; the construction bid for a new transportation facility on Garden Walk Boulevard, in Riverdale; and voice and data system bids for Pointe South and Riverdale middle schools.