The Barrow County Board of Education plans to put out two potential bus schedule scenarios for the 2020-21 school year for public review next week before a final decision is made in June. And one of the proposals could include flipping the start times between the district’s elementary schools and its middle and high schools.
The board will discuss the proposals again at its 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, voting session and will vote to put them out to the public for feedback until June 2, when it plans to make a final decision.
With the school district’s third high school — Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy on Austin Road in Winder — scheduled to open in August, the district is having to make some changes to its transportation schedule for next year and formed a task force in October to study the issues and eventually make recommendations for a new schedule to the school board.
Officials said the district’s main goals in the effort were to keep BASA in line with Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools as much as possible without significantly shortening the day at BASA, shorten the elementary school days by 15-30 minutes and reduce the daily window of afternoon bus arrival times at elementary schools by 30 minutes or more to 5-15 minutes.
At the board’s Tuesday, April 28 work session, Ken Greene, assistant superintendent for support services, presented a pair of scenarios for the board to consider, though the specifics of each scenario could be tweaked depending on the public input received. The scenarios came out of 10 developed between a consultant hired by the system and task force members.
Greene said the two the task force is recommending putting out for public review were the most “workable.”
“No single (scenario) meets all of the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” Greene said. “We knew going in that there would be competing demands.”
One of the options as currently presented would mean elementary schools would start an hour earlier and the middle schools and Apalachee and Winder-Barrow high schools would start an hour later, reversing the order that has been in place since the 2012-13 school year. BASA would start at the same time as elementary schools but would have a 455-minute day (30 minutes longer than the other two high schools). It would require eight additional buses to implement, Greene said.
The other option would be more similar to the current setup. BASA would start closer to the time of the other two high schools, but its day would be 50 minutes shorter (375). Elementary schools would start 30 minutes later and end 15 minutes later, shortening the current day from 420 to 405 minutes). The scenario wouldn’t require any additional buses but wouldn’t relieve currently overcrowded buses at the high school level, Greene said.
Both proposals would continue the district’s two-tier busing system, in which middle and high school students are transported together and elementary school students are transported separately.
The task force examined the possibility of a three-tier system — transporting each level separately — but quickly determined that would not be feasible for the near future, Greene said. He said 50 or more new school buses would be required to make that approach work.
“Even if we had the money (to acquire the buses), we couldn’t get that many drivers trained and ready to go in time,” Greene said, adding that, under a three-tier scenario considered, the elementary school days wouldn’t start until 9:30 a.m. and not end until 4 p.m.
Board opinion on the two scenarios was mixed Tuesday.
Board members Bill Ritter and Garey Huff said the board should avoid flipping start times right now amid the several facets of uncertainty generated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going through unprecedented times,” Ritter said. “I think it’s important to have as little of an impact on the community with this as we can right now.”
Board member Rickey Bailey said he would favor the option that flips the starting times because district officials identified fewer “cons” that it presented than the other option.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, which will be streamed live on the district’s YouTube page, the board will hear more from BASA principal Dale Simpson on his thoughts about a shorter day at the new high school versus a longer one.
Greene and superintendent Chris McMichael said Simpson favors a longer day and would provide the board with ideas on how he would utilize the extra time.
Greene and McMichael said while there are no plans for a survey to be put out, the district wants feedback from the public on the proposed scenarios. Greene said there was “sharp division” among the task force committee over which one members preferred.
“The committee will meet again before the (school board’s) May work session and will try to take the public feedback and make as many adjustments as we can to make the scenarios more palatable,” Greene said.
Board chair Lynn Stevens said she wanted to hear public feedback as well but stressed that it will ultimately be a board decision.
“At the end of the day, this is why we get paid the big bucks,” Stevens said.