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    Bus plan looms as parents choose

    Officials have yet to devise a transportation model for school choice, but parents' time to select a school will be up on Dec. 13.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 8, 2002

    This fall, Pinellas parents will choose their kids' schools for 2003-2004, knowing that bus service for some students will be different than it is today.

    But there's much they won't know.

    The transportation department's to-do list includes: studying bus stop locations, developing safety procedures, planning routes, and soliciting bids from private companies to provide up to 100 buses or drivers or both.

    It won't all be done by Dec. 13, the deadline for parents to make their decisions as part of a dramatic new school choice plan.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley said he didn't think the bus plan would cause problems for parents, saying they don't know where stops will be or how long bus rides will last when they select magnet programs.

    But Suzi Hayman, a Palm Harbor mother of two, says that information "would definitely be a factor in choosing a school."

    "I would want to know who's responsible for my child, what kind of system they have set up for keeping track of them," she said. "I would have thought that before they got this far that they would have had things like this a little more ironed out."

    Terry Palmer, the district's transportation director, said that would be impossible.

    "You're asking questions I can't answer because I don't know the choices parents will make," he said.

    He will know parents' choices in January.

    School Board members approved the framework of a new bus system Tuesday that will increase annual operating costs by more than $7-million.

    District officials hope that a private company can save the district money. Palmer estimates that the district could need as many as 200 more drivers and buses when choice starts; the district is seeking bids to handle half that increase.

    The district would handle the other 100 new hires. Hiring will begin this fall.

    John Bedron, a veteran bus driver who represents an employee union on several district committees, has numerous questions. He wants to make sure that contract drivers would have to undergo the same rigorous background checks and training.

    "Are they going to get the same caliber person?" Bedron asked. "Is the private guy going to do everything that the county employee does? Can he? Will he?"

    Palmer and Hinesley said that contract drivers would face the same rules and background checks as the county's drivers. The district would conduct impromptu audits on the chosen company, checking driving and maintenance records. All complaints about bus drivers and service would continue to be funneled through a county office.

    Hinesley said he hoped that the School Board would decide whether to contract with a private company by the end of the summer. The routes the company would take would be decided months later.

    In some cases, students from nearby schools would share one bus. One bus, for instance, would run through a neighborhood and pick up kids bound for two elementary schools; other buses would carry middle- or high-school students.

    Palmer won't know which schools will be paired until parents make choices. Some students will continue to get home-to-school service.

    Bus rides would be longer, too; district officials estimate that they will be 10 minutes longer but can't say for sure.

    Enrique Escarraz represented the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the federal desegregation case against the district; settlement of that case led to the choice plan. He has a first- and third-grader at Perkins Elementary. For two years, they have taken a bus that has stopped at three schools.

    "Everyone on the bus knows who's going to which school within a week," Escarraz said. "If a kid starts to get off at the wrong stop, the other kids would say, 'No, you wait. You get off at the next one.' "

    This fall, Palmer said, a committee will figure out a simple way to make sure that students will know where to go. That might be handing out color-coded stickers for students to wear the first few weeks. Bus drivers will carry a list with every rider's name, bus stop and school.

    "I see it very similar to when -- this happens every year -- you've got a kindergartener: How do they know what bus to get on after school every day?" Hinesley said. "We have a process in place to make sure they get on the same bus."

    Melrose Elementary principal Susan Graham has students who share a bus with those from Perkins and Bay Point and has never had a student get off at the wrong stop. Melrose students wear picture identification tags, and drivers alert students as they pull up to a particular school.

    "There's always someone who greets the children," Graham said. "The children help each other."

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