Henry's elementary kids eligible for buses next year

More elementary school students, including those living within a mile of their assigned schools, will be eligible to board school buses, effective next school year.

The Henry County Board of Education approved a recommendation Superintendent Ethan Hildreth to allow bus-transportation service for elementary school students who live less than one mile from their assigned schools, beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

The board voted, 4-0, to approve the provision, during its Jan. 24 meeting. Vice Chairman Erik Charles presided over the meeting. Board Chairman Brian Preston was absent.

Charles said overcrowding is not an issue at the elementary-school level. He said the board vote was based, in part, on safety concerns for those who might have to walk to school, as a result of the school system's current policy.

"We wanted to take a look at the elementary schoolers walking to schools," said Charles. "We looked at the safety issue, and we were concerned with that."

Henry's current bus policy, adopted Aug. 1, 1990, states that those students living more than a mile from their assigned schools are eligible for transportation to, and from, school. Students living less than a mile from their assigned schools are not eligible, unless otherwise approved the school board.

Although elementary school students will be able to ride the buses next year, the policy remains intact for students in middle school and high school. There will still be a so-called "non-transportation zone" for them.

There are 9,300 students on elementary school bus routes, according to Tony Pickett, Henry County's executive assistant to the Office of the Superintendent. Based on current projections, that number would increase to roughly 11,200 riders, once non-transportation-zone riders are added.

"At this time, the board's decision does not extend to middle and high school students, who reside within one mile from their assigned school, as the school system's bus fleet does not have the capacity to accommodate the number of routes and riders required for such service," said Pickett.

Charles said the school district's transportation department studied the matter of cost, and bus-seat availability. The department, he said, determined there was enough available seating on elementary school bus routes to transport elementary students living in the non-transportation zone, without incurring additional costs.

Middle and high school bus routes remain at capacity, noted Cliff Shearouse, Henry's transportation director, during a previous interview with the Henry Daily Herald.

Shearouse said this school year, buses pick up 6,847 middle school pupils, and 6,878 high school students, and that effort, combined, requires about 50 more buses than elementary school riders use.

Charles acknowledged that the school board, and its transportation department, disregarded full implementation of the bus scheduling and routing policy for many years, offering transportation to all students, as a courtesy, up until the national economic crisis about two years ago.

He said implementing the policy was an effort to provide adequate seating for students living outside the non-transportation zone, as the school board dealt with fewer funds to manage bus transportation.

The state does not provide funding to local school districts for the transportation of students living within a mile and a half of their assigned schools, added Pickett.