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Transportation uncertainty leaves schools in limbo

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

After months of waiting to hear what Clayton County Public Schools officials are going to do about transportation for school-of-choice institutions, including two district-run charter schools, parents and administrators at these schools are still -- well -- waiting.

Under a budget-cutting proposal, home-to-school transportation will be eliminated for school-choice sites, including: the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, the school system's Open Campus High School, the Fine Arts Magnet High School, and the Alternative High School.

Students at these schools would instead have to be taken to a drop-off site at Tara Stadium, in Jonesboro, where shuttle buses would take them to their respective schools.

The parents argued, however, that while they understood the budget issue, having only one drop off-site created hardships for them. As a result, by late April, district officials had pledged to find an alternative transportation plan for these schools.

Well, as of Wednesday, officials have still not decided on a new plan, said district spokesman Charles White, in a written statement. "We have been working to develop an option that is a viable alternative to the initial re-alignment of transportation service," White said. "The district has not released details of this option, as yet, because those details have not been finalized."

But, while the school system is still trying to figure things out, officials and parents from the charter schools are being left in a holding pattern, and say they aren't sure how to plan for the upcoming school year.

Elite Scholars Academy Executive Director Graysen Walles said the uncertainty over transportation is affecting the school in terms of some planning for the next school year -- which begins next month for his particular school. Walles said the school's Parent-Teacher Association is going to create a carpool system, based around whatever plan the school system comes up with. He also said the school's officials are trying to figure out how many students may show up to school earlier, or even later, than normal, because their parents have to drive the youths to school around their own work schedules.

"It's affecting us from a logistical standpoint," he said. But, in terms of enrollment, Walles said the uncertainty has not deterred parents from keeping their children in the school.

Out of the 216 students who attended during the 2009-2010 school year, the school has only heard from the families of "less than 10" of them, saying they will not be able to return next year, because of the transportation issue, according to Walles.

Whether the same can be said of parents at Unidos remains up in the air. On Monday, Lorraine Lynch, the vice president of Unidos' School Council, told members of the county's school board that Unidos did not do its traditional, end-of-the-school year "Will you return next year" survey of parents, because of the uncertainty about what will happen with transportation.

Lynch, whose son was a fourth-grader at Unidos during the 2009-2010 school year, has become a de facto spokesperson for the school's parents at meetings of the Clayton County Board of Education. She was one of the first to speak out against the original transportation plan, and has stood before the school board members every month to remind them that the issue needs to be resolved.

"Without knowing what is going to happen, our school has no way of planning for what may come," Lynch said. She said that without information, parents have been left to only speculate about what may happen, leading to rumors popping up that paint a dismal picture of both the school's future, and of Superintendent Edmond Heatley, who came up with the district's budget-cutting plan.

"Due to no information being provided at all, rumors have begun to circulate," Lynch said. "One of the rumors is that the school is going to close. Another rumor is that the superintendent does not support charter schools."

Unidos school officials have already said they plan to remain open during the 2010-2011 school year, however. Lynch pleaded with district officials to stem the spreading of these rumors by, at least, letting parents, or officials from the affected schools, participate in discussions on how to address the transportation issue.

"Is there anyway of involving the stakeholders in this, so we can, at least, spread accurate information about what's going on?" Lynch asked.