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BOE has heated discussion on student buses

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Student transportation is not the school system's responsibility.

That was the stance Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley took Monday night, during heated discussions among members of the county's board of education on the issue of transporting students who live within a mile and a half of their schools.

At the beginning of the current school year, the district began enforcing an old, and rarely enforced, policy that states that the school system will not transport those students who live too close to their schools. Nearly 4,600 children are affected by the decision.

Heatley, and at least one school board member, said the parents should take more responsibility for the education of their children. "It's the parent's responsibility to get their child to, and from, school," Heatley said. "I've said this to the board, and I've said this to the parents. We don't trade off teaching and learning, and we don't trade off student safety. On this one, however, the school system cannot be all things to all people."

The school board will again take up the issue at its Sept. 13 business meeting. There is a push, by at least one board member, to make changes to the student transportation policy. District officials argue that eliminating the service to the students is a cost-cutting move, designed to save money in an effort to ward off a funding shortfall. According to new figures provided to board members on Monday, the district is saving $3.7 million by cutting transportation to 4,581 students.

The Georgia Department of Education does not re-imburse school systems for transporting students who live within a mile and a half of their schools. Of those pupils affected by the enforcement of the policy, School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson said 3,495 of them are elementary school students, while another 771 attend middle schools, and the remaining 315 are high school students.

Discussions on Monday revealed a deep divide between board members on whether students should be walking, or riding on a school bus. Board Member Jessie Goree noted that the district's slogan is, "It's all about the children," but accused Heatley and Jackson of having different priorities. "Maybe, we need to say 'It's all about the money,'" she said.

Board Member Wanda Smith countered with, "Why do they [parents] expect us to do more with less? Can you stop beating us down, and saying we're insensitive? There is no money! Why are you not going to the governor's office, asking him why he cut funding? Why are you not going to the board of commissioners, asking them why there's no sidewalks? Now that things have gotten bad, you're getting upset that there are no sidewalks?"

In the end, the board was no closer to reaching agreement on the issue after discussing it, than they were before the meeting. There were no suggestions made by anyone on how to solve the problem.

Instead, the board voted 8-1 to continue discussing the policy now being enforced, at its next meeting a little less than a month from now. Board Member Pamela Adamson was the lone dissenting voter. She said it was because she felt the policy did not need to be changed.

Meanwhile, the discussions that took place on Monday quickly devolved into verbal sparring among board members. "We need to sit down, and wholeheartedly look at this," Goree said. Smith, however, accused Goree of trying to make the school board into the scapegoat for public outrage over the issue. "You keep trying to put that back at the board's feet," Smith said. The District 2 school board representative also said parents need to step up and have more involvement in the education process.

"If it take a whole village to raise the children, then what are the parents going to bring to the table?" she asked. Goree responded: "I don't want us getting into the tit-for-tat over this."

Parents in the audience, meanwhile, heckled Heatley, Jackson and several members of the board, while the issue was discussed. It eventually led School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson to tell everyone in the meeting room -- board members and audience members -- to "stop pointing fingers," and to "start working together."

Some parents whose children are now having to walk to school, however, said they were just disgusted with the response they heard from district leaders and some board members during the meeting. "I'm hoping to see them use some common sense," said Jackson Elementary School parent, Erica Holmes.

Jonesboro resident, Lasaundra Algere, the mother of three Jackson Elementary School parents, who walk a mile and a half to, and from, school everyday, said total strangers have pulled over and tried to get her children to get in their cars in the afternoons. One day, the children got into the car with one of those strangers, but the person turned out to be a good Samaritan, and just gave them a ride home.

"I'm blessed here, today, to see my kids," Algere said.

Carmel Tye, of Jonesboro, the mother of a second-grader at Jackson Elementary School, said she was shocked when she heard Superintendent Heatley's insistence that parents are responsible for transporting their children to, and from, school. Heatley had argued that he understood what parents were going through, because his own children attend Clayton County schools, but Tye said she did not buy it.

"I was wondering, 'Why do I pay taxes?'" Tye said. "I didn't feel like he was sincere in his concern for the children. I felt like he was saying his kids go to school here to justify how he felt about this."

But, transportation was not the only hot-button item during the board meeting. The issue of Lewis Academy of Excellence's petition for a new charter also came up. Superintendent Heatley said the district is wrapping up its review of Lewis Academy's petition. The school has been without a charter since its original one expired this summer.

"I am comfortable to say that on Sept. 13, I am asking that Lewis Academy be added to the [meeting] agenda," Heatley said. "At that time, I will make a recommendation. I will not say what that recommendation is going to be, before that date."

That time frame will put Lewis Academy in jeopardy of not getting state funding for this year. Officials from the Georgia Department of Education had previously said the charter school would have to be open for at least 10 school days before the state conducts its annual Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) student head count in early October, to get state funding this year.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet in early September, before the Clayton County school board's business meeting, meaning a vote by the state board may not come before October.

Lewis Academy founder, and Chief Executive Officer Patricia Lewis said she is not sure what will happen to the school, or how it will deal with funding, at this point. She criticized the school system for taking months to review her petition.

"Parents are crying, students are crying, staff are crying," Lewis said. "They've been taking too long to do this process."