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Henry reviews school bus options

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The Henry County Board of Education has continued to review its school bus scheduling and routing options, which also include providing school transportation services to all students.

There are no plans to change current bus routing practices, but "change is always a consideration," said board member, Pam Nutt.

Changes to transportation practices, she said, are more likely to happen a couple of years from now, when revenues for education are healthier.

"Finances are getting worse and worse," she said. "And 2011 is supposed to be the 'drop-dead' year. The money is really going to continue to be an issue in just providing the basic transportation."

Nutt said the school board is still reviewing three options for bus routing.

The veteran board member said the first option is continuing the use of a 20-year-old policy that acknowledges non-transportation zones, in which most students living within a mile radius of their assigned schools are not provided transportation services.

Another option, Nutt added, would place elementary school students, living within a mile of their school, back on the school bus at a price tag of about $150,000. The second option involves eliminating the use of non-transportation zones for elementary school students. All elementary school students would be provided school transportation, but their middle and high school counterparts would not receive the same service.

Nutt said the school board's final option -- eliminating the use of non-transportation zone routes altogether -- would require about $190,000 more in additional funding, as well as four more school buses, and costs associated with their operation and maintenance.

The one-mile non-transportation-zone policy was originally implemented due to the need for additional bus seats, according to Cliff Shearouse, Henry's transportation director. "The school system was not able to purchase the number of buses needed," he explained. "Therefore, the decision from the Board was to strictly enforce the current Board Policy EDD."

The school board transportation policy, which is available at the school system's web site, stipulates that only in temporary situations will a bus be loaded more than 20 percent beyond its seating capacity.

The policy, adopted on Aug. 1, 1990, specifies that "those students who live less than one mile from the school to which they are assigned may be transported to, and from, school provided that: The pick-up points are on a route traveled by a bus, and no students are required to stand as a result of those students who live less than one mile frsom their assigned school riding the bus."

Policy EDD also provides guidance on school bus stops. It states that "all students who reside less than 0.3 miles from an established bus stop will be required to walk to that stop to board a bus." Exceptions may be made with regard to student and individual safety, special education student riders, inadequate turn-arounds, or risk of property damage.

School officials said, for several years after the policy was adopted, the school system provided courtesy transportation services to even those students living within the one-mile radius, and within the 0.3-mile distance from an existing bus stop.

Then, in 2009, the school board began implementing bus schedules and routes that acknowledged the 1990 school board policy.

"This measure was not taken in order to save money," said Shearouse, adding that the school board's "transportation budget was reduced by more than $560,000 by strictly enforcing Board Policy EDD. From this reduction, more than $91,000 was attributed to the implementation of the one-mile, non-transportation zones."

The transportation director reiterated that implementing the school board policy saved his department from having to purchase additional school buses with funds it did not readily have. The department is responsible for transporting more than 23,000 students daily.

"For the current school year, there are no changes to the current operation of school bus transportation," continued Shearouse. "At this time, we are planning to continue operating the same next year as we are this year."