By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
More than 60 parents and children crowded into the small school board meeting room. Extra chairs were pulled from tables and added to the front rows to accommodate the crowd, and a few still stood near the back of the room when there were no more seats left.
What drew the crowd to the usually sparsely-attended school board meetings was the “one issue of burning concern,” as School Board Chair VeEtta Hagan described it, as she skipped over several items on the agenda to deal with it first – the new bus routes designed to save the school money on transportation and fuel costs…an estimated saving of about $12,000 a month.
However, the parents gathered in the board room contended that the new routes were either putting their children in jeopardy or placing unrealistic hardships on very young children expected to walk to the new bus stops, some of which were more than two miles from their homes.
Reverend Barfield was the first to speak, and had to leave shortly afterward for a church service, saying that the community was up in a rage because they believed their children’s safety was being compromised. “I urge you to do everything possible…pretty please, let’s put our children’s safety first, and I know you will. I do trust that y’all will come up with something suitable.”
Ivan Johnson then took the podium to answer questions, hear the concerns parents had about particularly troublesome stops, and make notes of situations that needed to be changed. Several stops had already been changed, Johnson told the crowd, since the computer program that created the new routes didn’t take into account the sparsely populated, rural sections of the county where some of the children lived, the condition of roads, traffic situations, and the “human factor” – the fact that some of the children were so young that they were physically incapable of walking the distances allowed by the computer program, or that the new stops required them to walk past the homes of sex offenders or other dangerous places.
One after another, parents presented their cases, from the children who lived on the south side of I-10 and now had to pass two truck stops and go beneath an underpass to get to the north side, to the four-year-old whose new stop was 1.6 miles from home, on a deserted dirt road with no other houses around, to the account of suspicious men seen taking pictures of children at another stop.
Some of the bus stops didn’t even seem to make sense, as one parent pointed out. Instead of stopping at the usual corner from last year, where his child and several other children lived nearby, the new stop required all the children to hike their way to an empty lot where hardly any children or anyone else lived.
Some of the new stops were on narrow dirt roads that had no easement on the side where the children could stand, and where “there’s not even a ditch they can jump into” when cars sped by in excess of the posted speed limits. Some required walking through heavily wooded areas, where parents had to clear away brush to allow the children to pass through.
Johnson took notes of the cases that needed changing, jotting down names, addresses and telephone numbers where the parents could be reached.
Working parents were also concerned with having to leave children unattended at the new stops so far from their homes, especially those who had to work in other counties. One mother asked if she could drop off her children early at school, but Hagan advised against it, since the district could not require that teachers be there that early. Since the bus driver lived on the same street as the mother, and they were friends and neighbors, she agreed to a suggestion that she drop off her children at the bus driver’s house, if that was okay with everyone…the children would simply begin their bus route early instead of being dropped off at school early.
Other thorny questions remained and not all parents were happy with the outcomes. When someone asked why the routes couldn’t be put back the way they were before, Andy Barnes explained that the district had an $800,000 transportation budget shortfall, money that was having to be taken out of the classroom to make up the difference. School Board Member Kenny Hall added that when the 2.5 mils didn’t pass, another possible source of funding was out of the running as well, leaving only budget cuts to try to minimize the red ink.
A second item that caused nearly as much discussion as the bus routes was the activity bus, used by sports team, the band, cheerleaders and after school tutoring, as well as club activities like the Boys and Girls Clubs, which reimbursed the district for mileage and fuel. Although Hall supported keeping the activity bus, which he said he believed provided a valuable service to the students, he said he was putting it back on the agenda for reconsideration, because so many people had questioned the expense when so many other things were being cut.
Hagan opposed keeping the activity bus, saying that when the county was number one in sports and number 67 in education, cutting education while keeping the extracurricular, “that’s a problem with me.” Nevertheless the motion to cut the bus failed two to three.
After several other items on the agenda were voted on, Hagan adjourned the nearly two and a half hour meeting.