The school board indicated in a workshop Thursday that it will approve new start times for Pickens students for the next academic year as part of a massive revamping of student bus transportation.
Based on times presented at the workshop, students will see the following school times when they return to school next year:
Elementary schools 7:45 a.m. to start and 2:30 dismissal
Middle schools 8:10 to start and 3:25 dismissal
High school 8:10 to start and 3:10 dismissal.
Assistant Superintendent Tommy Qualls responded to a question from the board that high school currently has an earlier release time than the middle school. He said this was instituted a few years back to allow more instructional time at the middle school level, where “camps” cut into regular class time. He said that principals at the middle school had requested more classroom time.
As a transportation rationale, it was explained that buses could leave the county’s single high school together and then have time to split up and reach the two middle schools for their later release times.
New start times come as the first step in a reorganization of school bus transportation in the county. New staggered start times will allow the system to put some buses running two routes, so the system can operate with fewer buses and drivers.
In the lengthy discussion between the board and Operations Supervisor Lloyd Shaddix and Bruce Godfrey (in charge of school transportation), it was noted there are a lot of details still to be worked out on bus routes, but the new start times appear headed for approval during the school board’s June meeting.
The board met in a workshop Thursday, May 19, where they could not officially vote, but four of the five board members present (Byron Long left early) made comments affirming the change in start times.
Presenting the plan, Shaddix said the schools currently divide students onto buses with elementary students on some buses and middle and high school students on other buses.
This separation will be maintained under any new plan. By adjusting the start times, they could have some buses assigned to double routes, picking up a load of elementary kids first, then returning to the same area for middle and high school students.
“Basically with the same start times we have one bus for K through 5th grade and one for 6th through 12th grade. In a lot of neighborhoods, we have two buses running back to back. If we can do like other systems and move to staggered starts, we’ll have a little more in fuel and in the pay of some drivers (who will drive longer hours), but we’ll be able to take buses off the routes, and we will realize a cost savings.”
While the new start times were discussed in concrete terms, Shaddix and Godfrey said exactly how they will change routes is a work in progress.
As part of the revamping, the transportation department is compiling a list of roads where only one or two students are picked up. Students on those roads may be asked to walk to the end of their road to a junction for pick up. But the school staff has said repeatedly this must be handled on a case by case basis, depending on the safety at stops.
Interim Superintendent Ben Arp said with the plan students will not be required to board a bus any earlier than they do now. He said the double routes would be those closest to the schools, so all riders should have shorter ride.
Board member Ervin Easterwood said this plan is nothing new. He said when he was in school they ran “country routes and town routes” using the same buses and drivers for two routes each, covering pick up and drop off.
Board member John Trammell instructed the staff to not release any bits of information until they had their entire plan ready. He cautioned that “piddling” out information would lead to speculation and misinformation reaching parents.
Board Chair Wendy Lowe said it was important that they get the information on start time and route changes out as early as possible and to make sure it is presented clearly to all parents.
“Let’s make sure we don’t add confusion on top of parents that are already disgruntled,” she said.
She also added that a second important principle with this is to treat all the drivers with respect. The plan is to reduce driver numbers only through attrition, and Lowe said it’s important to make sure the drivers are aware of this.
Godfrey said they were using six full-time substitute drivers at the moment, as they had lost some drivers to Cherokee County recently and had a hiring freeze in place for driver positions.
Lowe said it is important that even with the cuts in buses and drivers that they ensure there would be buses and drivers available for field trips.
Godfrey cautioned the board that they need to be firm once the change in routes is announced, as reversing the decision would be time consuming.
“Yes, there will be a lot of calls. The issue is we have to hold true to what we say. We’ll put a lot of time into the new routes, and it can’t be changed back in a day or two. There may be some discontent because people are used to door-to-door pick ups. People don’t like change. But as we progress, we have to work through the rough spots.”
Several board members said they had already been getting some calls about this, but Trammell said people will appreciate the financial considerations of the change.
“The bulk of transportation funding comes from local money. With this we’re working to protect tax dollars. I think most people will respect that and will be tickled at your efforts,” Trammell told Godfrey and Shaddix.