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Riding to Frances Nungester Elementary School in Decatur are, from left, Arianna Wheatley, Jamelia Carter, Peresha Owens and Yayra Ibarra.
Daily photos by Gary Lloyd
Riding to Frances Nungester Elementary School in Decatur are, from left, Arianna Wheatley, Jamelia Carter, Peresha Owens and Yayra Ibarra.

Gearing
for bus service

Athens in fast lane with state funds request; Decatur expansion must wait

By Bayne Hughes and Holly Hollman
news@decaturdaily.com · 353-4612

Growth is driving the need for bus service in two local school systems, but one is in a faster lane.

Developers and new parents seeking a busing system, and the promise of state funds, have Athens City Schools implementing door-to-door pickup in August.

Meanwhile, Decatur City Schools is building its bus service in stages, paying the start-up from its General Fund.

“We didn’t know the state had this money until we read in the newspaper about Athens,” Decatur Superintendent Sam Houston said.

Decatur operated under long-standing state rules that a school system had to use a bus service for a year to build cost history before the state reimburses it for bus driver salaries, maintenance and fuel costs.

State Department of Education statistician Jerry Lassiter said the state helps pay to start a bus system. Lassiter said good economic times allowed a rule relaxation. If a local system wants financial help, and can show the need and student interest, the state will include the request in the school budget that the Legislature considers.

Athens Finance Director Barry Hamilton said that in fall 2006, the Athens City Board of Education sent out a survey, and more than 500 parents said they would let their children ride a bus. Developers seeking de-annexation from the city helped prompt the survey. Developers said homes in eastern Athens would sell faster if parents knew their children could ride a bus to Limestone County schools since Athens didn’t offer the service.

Athens does not have any schools east of Interstate 65. A parent living on Mooresville Road who works in Huntsville has to drive west 10 miles to take a child to Athens Intermediate and then backtrack toward Huntsville.

“We also have new parents moving in who came from systems that offered busing,” Hamilton said.

More parents among those expected with the federal Base Realignment and Closure process, which is moving military jobs to Redstone Arsenal, might want the service.

Hamilton said the city contacted state transportation officials, who analyzed the surveys and did a cost estimate on implementing and operating a busing system.

The students on this bus attend school at Frances Nungester Elementary or Brookhaven Middle School. Decatur city and Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials want bus service to all kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the district.
The students on this bus attend school at Frances Nungester Elementary or Brookhaven Middle School. Decatur city and Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials want bus service to all kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the district.
If the Legislature approves the budget the Department of Education expects to receive for 2007-08, officials said they would allocate about $800,000 to Athens. That’s the projected cost of operating the bus system for a year. The city would receive that money Oct. 1 instead of having to wait until Oct. 1, 2008.

Hamilton said Athens is picking up the cost from January to Oct. 1. Athens budgeted $250,000 for startup costs, such as hiring a transportation director and drivers and setting up a garage. The board has approved a roughly $1 million lease-purchase agreement for 14 new buses, using a portion of its capital project funding to pay the lease.

Transportation Director Donnie Powers said Athens plans to implement door-to-door pickup for students in kindergarten through eighth grade in August. Powers is hiring 12 drivers.

Lassiter said Opp, Lanett and Andalusia got the same help that Athens plans to receive. Decatur is too late to get money and will have to wait until 2008. Decatur officials have inquired about the money.

Like Athens, Decatur’s interest in expanding its bus service began with resident demands.

Burningtree and Indian Hills area residents in south Decatur pushed for the service in 2004, so the city began offering service to elementary students living two or more miles from school. There was no door-to-door pickup, just collection points.

This led to criticism that middle school students couldn’t ride the bus. A year later, the school system added middle school students living two or more miles from their schools. Again the system picked up at collection points.

Now city and Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce officials want service to all kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer John Seymour says the service would help the city’s BRAC recruitment efforts. Seymour said many of the BRAC newcomers from the Northern Virginia area have bus service.

Houston said the state will do a survey to gauge student interest in Decatur. A route map will follow. Houston said he would like to establish bus stops no more than two-tenths of a mile from any elementary or middle school student who wants to ride.

Decatur Finance Director Melanie Maples said the first two expansions cost the system about $50,000 — the cost of hiring two bus drivers, one for each expansion, and additional fuel expense. She does not have a cost estimate on Houston’s plan.

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