Board backs bus schedule

Published 10:45 pm Friday, April 11, 2014

School district transportation staffers are hoping they have it right this time after the board endorsed their new staggered schedule to try to get students to class on time and home at a reasonable hour.

Kevin Alston, the district’s chief of operations, has described the new timetable as resembling the original cost-saving plan presented last year, which, based in a large part on feedback during public meetings, was altered significantly before adoption in September.

Under the new policy:

  • Middle schools, plus Turlington Woods, will run from 7:25 a.m. to 2 p.m., with busses arriving at 7 a.m.
  • High schools will operate from 8:25 a.m. to 3 p.m. Buses will arrive at 8 a.m.
  • Florence Bowser, Hillpoint, Kilby Shores, Mack Benn Jr. and Northern Shores elementary schools will run from 9:20 a.m. to 3:35 p.m., with arrival at 8:50 a.m.
  • Booker T. Washington, Creekside, Elephant’s Fork, Nansemond Parkway, Oakland and Southwestern elementary schools will operate from 9:35 a.m. until 3:50 p.m., and buses will arrive at 9:05 a.m. Pioneer Elementary School will also run this schedule when it opens in the fall.

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Two new proposals were released to the public in mid-March to test the waters; Thursday’s School Board meeting heard that 180 people offered their opinion.

Parents had wanted high schools starting later, according to Alston, but the supported schedule was “the latest possible time that we could do” without impacting after-school programs like the Governor’s School for the Arts.

Concerns were also raised over the late start for elementary schools, which, being after the 9 a.m. start of their working day, was inconvenient for many parents, and, according to research, too late for students to be at their best.

Ursula Baker said students at Creekside Elementary were already not getting a snack “until right before they leave to get on the bus” because of long commutes, and her daughter was returning home too late to take ballet classes.

District Superintendent Deran Whitney said staff “strongly” recommended the four-tier schedule, adding that supervision would be provided at elementary schools from 8:30 a.m. for early drop-offs.

“This has not been an easy task,” Whitney said of implementing the staggered schedule, which has resulted in numerous reports of mishaps.

“I think we all do agree that it has not worked very effectively. The challenge has always been to save funding” while ensuring students were getting to school on time and “home at a reasonable time.”

The four-tier schedule was not “perfect” nor “ideal,” he said, but he thought it would have fewer problems and result in fewer double-runs for drivers.

Alston pinned the blame on the lack of drivers, saying the district was down “somewhere between 20 and 30 drivers” at the beginning of the school year. “That’s what led to most of the problems,” he said.

“We still have some problems,” Alston added, “but — once again — we are still understaffed.”

Enoch Copeland and Linda Bouchard voted against the four-tier plan. Copeland said many elementary school students would arrive home in isolated areas after dark, which was unsafe. Bouchard said that everything should have been designed around the younger students starting first, because research suggested they performed better earlier in the day “and after lunch they are worthless.”

Alston reminded the board that it changed last year’s original plan and set elementary schools back in the day over fears about children waiting at bus stops in the dark on winter mornings.

Judith Brooks-Buck, who had voiced those earlier concerns, said on Thursday, “We are going to be in the dark in the evening or we are going to be in the dark in the morning,” adding that she supported the new plan if it gets students home before nightfall, but “if they are in the dark in the evening … I’m against that as well.”

After describing the district’s challenge in finding enough drivers, Alston said, “To try to say that we will be on time every day? Impossible.”

“It’s a monumental task,” he added.