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Board plans to change school starting times to cut buses

Posted: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Juneau School Board on Tuesday approved a new policy to govern when bus service will be offered.

The board also introduced a plan to save money by cutting some bus routes and changing some schools' starting and ending times, so fewer buses are needed. The changes would take effect next school year.

About a third of the school district's 5,400 students ride school buses.

Until this school year, the state set rules for bus service and paid for school districts' actual busing costs. But now the state gives districts a transportation grant based on their student enrollment, and districts are setting their own busing policies.

The Juneau School District will offer busing on routes that have at least eight students who live more than 112 miles from school. The district's policy had been to offer elementary school routes with as few as five students.

Some Thane Road residents were concerned they could lose their routes under the eight-student threshold. But Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the district's rules will allow buses that already are running to downtown to continue on and pick up Thane children.

The district administration also has set procedures to determine when a route within 112 miles of a school is so hazardous for children to walk that a bus or crossing guard will be provided.

Citizens can ask the district to consider a hazardous route designation. Each spring, a Hazardous Transportation Committee of district, city and state officials will recommend to the district which routes are unsafe.

The criteria for a safe walking route include the availability of pedestrian trails, bike paths, sidewalks and residential streets even without sidewalks.

Acceptable road crossings include main streets with traffic lights, crossing guards or overpasses. Even without those elements, a street crossing will be considered safe if there are at least 60 gaps in the traffic per hour. A gap refers to having enough time for a child to walk across the street plus three seconds.

The criteria will not consider the temperature or the possible presence of wild or domestic animals or criminal activity.

Nine current bus routes are within 112 miles of a school, said Zach Hanna, a consultant to the district on busing, in a report.

He has suggested that perhaps seven of those routes, carrying a collective 330 students, wouldn't meet the criteria for hazardous routes. They are two routes to Floyd Dryden Middle School, two to Glacier Valley Elementary School and three to Mendenhall River Community School.

The district is looking for ways to cut at least $286,000 from its busing costs of about $2 million next school year so it doesn't have to use instructional funds to supplement the state busing grant.

The board's plan to save that money - introduced Tuesday for a possible vote on March 17 - would cut the seven presumed nonhazardous bus routes within 112 miles of a school and change the starting and ending times of some schools so that fewer buses would be needed.

The new school times would allow more bus routes to be staggered, reducing the need for buses. The district pays by the vehicle.

"This plan provided the least disruption while providing for significant cost savings," said board member Alan Schorr. It would save about $350,000, the consultant's report said.

The plan would leave the starting times of Juneau-Douglas High School, the middle schools and Glacier Valley Elementary the same as they are now.

But it would move Mendenhall River Community School's school day to 30 minutes later, move Riverbend Elementary's day to 45 minutes later, and move the day of Auke Bay, Gastineau and Harborview elementary schools to 15 minutes later.

Riverbend Principal Carmen Katasse has said the school is concerned that parents on the way to work will drop off their children early, long before the school doors open. Many of the school's parents can't afford early-morning child care, she has said.

Parents at Glacier Valley Elementary, which would lose both of its bus routes, have said they will ask for the routes to be considered hazardous.

Parents are concerned about slippery or unplowed sidewalks in winter, the difficulty of drivers seeing children over snow berms, as well as bears and bullies. It will be inconvenient for some parents to drive their children to and from school, they added.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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