By Johnny Jackson
The Henry County Board of Education, looking for ways to reduce crowding on school buses next year, is reviewing a proposal to create a three-tier, bus-transportation schedule which would eliminate 46 driver jobs.
School officials believe the proposal is a potential option for dealing with a simultaneous lag in funding and boost in student enrollment.
"We haven't bought buses in the last two years," said Cliff Shearouse, Henry County Schools' transportation director. "[However,] the school system is still growing. We're still increasing the number of students enrolling."
Shearouse said the school district is unable to afford new school buses -- which cost about $72,000 each -- to provide more seats for student riders. Meanwhile, he said, the district has projected an increase of 284 students in the 2010-11 school year, which could mean as many as 198 additional bus riders.
"I proposed a three-tier schedule, because we still need bus seats," Shearouse said.
He said the three-tier schedule would extend Henry's overall school day by 30 minutes, by allowing for three different round trips for elementary, middle, and high schools. The school district's current schedule incorporates two different round trips -- one for elementary schools, and one for middle and high schools.
Based on the proposal, bell times for elementary schools would be between 7:35 a.m., and 2:05 p.m.; 8:15 a.m., and 3:15 p.m., for high schools; and 8:55 a.m., and 3:55 p.m., for middle schools. Presently, Henry's elementary schools begin class at 7:55 a.m., and end at 2:25 p.m.; high schools begin at 8:30 a.m., and end at 3:35 p.m.; and middle schools begin at 8:35 a.m., and end at 3:45 p.m.
The extended school days might benefit high school students in particular, Shearouse said. Those who participate in extracurricular activities or work after school would be able to leave school earlier to go to an after-school job or school-related function.
Shearouse said the cost associated with implementing a three-tier schedule would be $1.4 million, which would be offset through workforce reductions. Eliminating 46 bus-driver positions and 78 bus-monitor positions would make up $917,700 and $311,040, respectively, leaving $184,556 to be paid for the proposed schedule change.
School officials have reiterated that the proposal is still in its infancy and may not be adopted for the 2011 budget, which could be as much as $45 million less than this year's budget.
With an anticipated 2011 budget worth $276 million, school officials believe student enrollment within the school district will continue to rise.
Shearouse said the school district's transportation department counted 23,400 daily school bus riders in January. The number of riders is partly the result of 2,500 students cut from bus routes a year ago as a result of the school board's decision to enforce a policy dating back to 1990 of only providing bus transportation -- with few exceptions -- to those students living more than a mile from their assigned schools.
The move was expected to free up bus seats that have been crowded in recent years by an unexpected increase in bus ridership. Shearouse said the three-tier schedule may be a way to have available seats next year, as there are no plans to fund new school buses until at least 2013.
"In this plan -- although the school system is under a system-wide look at how to save money -- we're not able to save the system additional money and still get more bus seats," Shearouse said.
Voters rejected a proposed 20-year, $256.5 million dollar bond issue during a March 17, 2009 referendum. The money, school officials said, would have been used to fund transportation, school construction and other needs.
School officials said, then, that approval of the bond referendum would have increased property taxes by 1 mill for Henry County homeowners, increasing the bond millage rate from 3.06 mills to 4.06 mills -- the highest such rate for bonds since 1995.
Shearouse said that, despite other efforts to provide more school bus seating within the school district's current fleet of 346 school buses, capacity has continued to be an issue.
He said the school district's transportation department had an additional 20 school buses age out of qualifying for state funding granted to districts based on the number of buses they have that are 10 years old or newer. The department operates only 170 school buses that are 10 years old or newer. The rest, 176 school buses, are 11 years old or older.
Shearouse noted the state paid $1.8 million, this year, to supplement the school district's $14 million transportation budget. However, beginning on July 1, the state will no longer fund transportation in schools using its current reimbursement equation that considers the age of buses, he added.