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Houston says surveys back full school bus service here

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

If the state Department of Education is agreeable, Superintendent Sam Houston believes two surveys show enough interest for Decatur City Schools to expand to a full bus service by the 2008-09 school year.

The school system surveyed teachers, parents and the community last spring, but state school transportation officials asked the system to conduct a survey of a larger sample of parents. Schools then sent home another survey with the students in the opening days of school and asked parents to return it within two weeks.

Houston told the Decatur school board at a work session Thursday at Compass Bank that about 800 responded to the first survey, with 45 percent saying they would take advantage of bus service with neighborhood pickup points if offered.

About 64 percent, or 5,554, of the school system’s 8,625 enrollment responded to the second survey, and 1,656, or about 30 percent, said they would take advantage of bus service.

“My personal observation is we’re looking at a community that’s not used to a comprehensive bus service,” Houston said. “So, I think this survey shows that a significant number of people in the community would take advantage of a bus service.”

He said the second survey indicated more interest among schools with the highest federal free-and-reduced lunch program qualifiers, such as Austinville, Frances Nungester, West Decatur, Somerville Road and Banks-Caddell elementary schools and Brookhaven Middle School.

There was more interest in elementary and middle schools than high school, which Houston attributed to those students becoming old enough to drive.

Houston said the state has not seen the second survey, so state officials might not agree that the city needs a full service. The city should get an answer in October because the state would have to arrange funding in the proposed Education Trust Fund budget that the state Legislature will consider during its spring session.

“They could do three things, say yes, say that we don’t need a comprehensive bus service or tell us that there are only certain areas which need a service,” Houston said.

Houston said the school system wouldn’t get the money until October 2008, so it would have to fund the first two months of service. The system hasn’t determined the cost of expanding bus service, but Finance Director Melanie Maples said the biggest expense would be leasing new buses.

Decatur has been offering bus service to fulfill desegregation plan requirements since 1980. The city expanded the service for elementary students living two miles or more from schools in 2003. The school board expanded service again in the 2004-05 school year to include middle school students living two miles or more from school.

Some citizens would like the city to offer a comprehensive bus service because they say it would be another incentive to draw transplants in the Base Realignment and Closure process.

School board President Dr. Charles Elliott said it would be good if those recruiting these transferees could tell them that bus service is on its way.

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