Busing plans worry parents

School district aims to trim bus routes to cope with less state funding

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Young children walking home from school in the dark. Parents paying for more child care because elementary schools open later in the morning. High school students and adults competing for gym space in the evening.

Those were some of the concerns parents and school staff voiced Tuesday night, as the Juneau School Board sought comment on proposals to change school busing.

About a third of the school district's 5,400 students ride school buses. But some of the proposed changes would affect a much larger percentage of students and their families.

The district wants to trim its busing costs by eliminating some bus routes within 112 miles of schools, and by staggering school starting and ending times so fewer buses are needed. The school district pays busing contractor Laidlaw by the bus, not by the route.

The state, starting this school year, no longer reimburses districts for their actual costs. Instead, the state gives a grant based on districts' enrollments.

"If you're experiencing any kind of decline in enrollment, it can be extremely difficult for the district," district business manager Gary Epperson told about 40 parents and educators who gathered Tuesday at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

Expecting about 90 fewer students next school year, the district wants to cut $286,000 from its roughly $2 million in annual busing costs. The $286,000 figure represents the amount of instructional funds that would help pay for buses, if cuts aren't made.

The district also must come up with its own rules for offering bus routes. It's looking at requiring at least 15 students and requiring bus riders to live at least 112 miles from a school, as measured by walking distance.

The rules also will spell out how to decide when walking conditions are so unsafe that bus routes should be offered within 112 miles of a school. Consultant Zach Hanna has estimated that seven routes, with a collective 330 students, might be dropped under such rules.

"Safety is the key issue in deciding those hazardous-bus routes," said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

Some parents questioned whether the district would judge hazardous routes by their conditions in the worst weather.

School Board member Andi Story said a walk to school may be safe for a fifth-grader but not a kindergartner. Parent Bill Diebels said a sidewalk that's in good condition in the fall might be unsafe in the winter.

"I'm thinking almost every walking route is going to be hazardous at some time," he said.

Many of the parents' reactions Tuesday were to possible changes in schools' starting and ending times. Schools now start between 8 and 9 in the morning, and bused high school students arrive there at 7:30 a.m.

Some of the district's scenarios include starting some elementary schools at 9:15 or 10:15 a.m., or starting the middle schools or Juneau-Douglas High School at 9:45 a.m.

Parent Chris King said moving elementary schools' schedules to later in the day would take time away from families and exhaust the children.

"I do feel a later schedule is going to affect families," she said. "They need family-value time, and we're inching away from that."

In written comments, one person said research shows that a late starting time for high school would match students' most active times of the day. Right now, JDHS students are done by 2:15 p.m., leaving a long period when they're not supervised by parents, the writer added.

But others were concerned that high school students wouldn't be able to fit jobs, internships, sports, other after-school activities and even homework into their schedules if JDHS classes ended at 4 p.m.

JDHS activities director Sandi Wagner said it would be hard to schedule sports practices and community use of gyms and playing fields if the school started and ended later in the day.

"We will have to stay in the gyms later, and the community will not be able to be in there, and that's going to be a huge impact on the community," she said.

The School Board is expected to decide on changes to bus routes and school times in February, Cowan said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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