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State backs school bus plan
Decatur system gets permission to expand service to all students in K-9th grade in 2008-09

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

The state gave Decatur City Schools permission to expand bus service to all students in kindergarten through ninth grade, starting with the 2008-09 school year, Superintendent Sam Houston said Tuesday.

State Department of Education’s transportation officials visited Decatur on Monday to look at expansion plans, mapping and student data before committing to the $1.1 million project. The commitment is contingent on legislative approval of the education budget in next spring’s legislative session.

Decatur Finance Director Melanie Maples said the local school system would have to spend about $50,000 for operating expenses and driver salaries. She said about $100,000 in lease-purchase payments on 10 new buses would be needed for the expansion. The money would cover the last two months of the 2008 fiscal year and come out of the school system’s reserves.

The Decatur school board will hold a called meeting Thursday at 5 p.m. to consider the school system’s participation in the project.

“This is exciting,” Houston said. “I think it will be a real benefit to the community. It will encourage students to attend school, and there’s no safer way to get to school than a school bus.”

Houston said the state suggested offering the bus service only through ninth grade because two school surveys did not show enough high school interest. Elementary students would ride separate buses from middle school and high school freshmen.

“If the interest is there later, we might pick up the high school,” Houston said.

Houston said he isn’t sure if he would want 4-year-olds to ride on a bus to pre-kindergarten.

He said the school system must work on its bus routes and pickup points. Officials would prefer having bus stops at locations such as church or business parking lots rather than on corners or streets along the route.

“We would prefer not putting kids out on some street corner and have a good safe place for them to gather,” Houston said. “Some routes could have more stops than others, if there’s no good place to collect them on those routes.”

This continues a bus expansion that began in 2003. Prior to that Decatur offered busing only for the desegregation plan and special needs students, but then began offering the service to elementary students living two miles or more from school after Burningtree area residents complained.

A year later, after criticism that the bus service didn’t include middle school students, the school board expanded the service for middle school students living two miles or more from school.

Some city officials, including leaders in the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing for full bus service. They said this will help them recruit transferees to the area as part of the federal Base Realignment and Closure commission’s plan to move about 4,500 military jobs to Redstone Arsenal.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, so that’s good news,” said John Seymour, chamber president and chief executive officer.

Seymour said chamber officials heard that busing is an issue during their BRAC recruiting trips.

“In a lot of families, both spouses work and it’s difficult for them to leave work at 3 or 3:15 in the afternoon to go pick up their children,” Seymour said.

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