By Joel Hall
Clayton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, this week, called for a joint public meeting of the commission and the county's board of education to discuss ways in which the boards can work together to make walking to, and from, school safer for children.
While Clayton County Public Schools oversees bus services -- which were cut this school year for 4,600 children living within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of their schools -- the county board of commissioners is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks and roads, on which the children are now forced to walk.
Bell said that, on Sept. 7, he sent a letter to Board of Education Chairperson Alieka Anderson, and other school officials, discussing recent changes to the school system's bus pick-up policy. He said he is seeking ways in which the BOC can work with the BOE to "lessen the impact that the changes have on your students by insuring that there are sufficient crosswalks, lighting, and sidewalks."
In the letter, he suggested having "a joint public hearing of our two Boards as we begin preparing our respective FY2012 budgets."
Bell said Friday, that while the BOC has no control over the budget of the school system, a joint public hearing with the school board may help identify, and eliminate, "potential danger spots."
"I've had calls from several parents, particularly from elementary schools, about the transportation issue with the children living in the 1.5 mile radius of their school," Bell said. "I have gone out and looked at some of the locations, and I am of firm resolve that if we work together on these issues, we could make them more palatable for the children and their parents.
"We need better crosswalk markings in some of those places ... In some of those places, we need to create new crosswalks and, possibly, erect crossing lights," Bell continued. "[In] some of the places, we need to cut back the vegetation, so the sidewalk is clear. Although we have no control over what the school board does, we serve the same people and we have the same fiduciary responsibilities in terms of safety.
"We want to work more closely with the school system on this issue, particularly when it impacts our youngest citizens," he said.
On Friday, Anderson said she had not yet received Bell's letter, and thus, could offer no comment.
Clayton County Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson, who oversees the school system's transportation department, said the school system's decision last month to cut bus services to students within close proximity of their schools, had "unintended consequences." He said a joint meeting between the BOC and BOE would help ease "parental anxiety" and serve to maximize county resources.
"I think it's critical that the two boards get together and share information, so there isn't any duplication," Jackson said. "It is even more critical that we communicate now, with the reduced tax dollars coming into the coffers. You could probably maximize the use of taxpayer dollars, because they both come out of the same pocket," he said. "The two boards would meet with citizens to talk about their needs, and the two boards would get together and talk about how we can accommodate the citizens we have with the money we have."
Bell said that while a date for a joint public hearing had not been set or discussed, he would like the meeting to be an "open town hall around the safety of our children."
"If more crosswalks are needed, more lighting is needed; if more crossing guards are needed ... they [parents] would be urged to bring those concerns to us," Bell said. "We should be able to send staff out to evaluate those areas and take immediate action. I would urge us [the boards] to do it as soon as it is practical."