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    Buses drive up cost of school choice

    It's not just the cost of new bus drivers. Up to $12-million more may be needed if a solution for the storage and upkeep of additional buses isn't found.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 29, 2001


    LARGO -- In October, Pinellas School Board members learned they will have to spend about $6-million more a year on bus drivers when the district gives parents more choice about where their children attend school.

    On Tuesday, they learned that was just the beginning.

    It could cost the district nearly $12-million more over five years if school officials don't find an efficient way to store and maintain the estimated 250 additional buses the system will require.

    The two-hour discussion was an eye-opener for board members, who are beginning to see just how costly and complicated it will be to get students to and from school when "controlled choice" begins in 2003.

    The district will need more buses, more drivers, more places to put both -- and the expansion of bus storage facilities could lead to displacing and reassigning about 1,100 Tyrone Middle School students to three other St. Petersburg campuses. It also could lead to the razing of the former Forest Hills Elementary, which houses 18 Head Start classrooms.

    "These are dollars we would be taking out of the classroom, which we don't want to do," said transportation director Terry Palmer.

    The transition from traditional neighborhood zoning is part of a negotiated settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end a 1964 court case that led to court-ordered busing for desegregation and race ratios in schools. The settlement outlines a plan to divide the district into attendance areas, and parents would apply to attend their top choices.

    While the settlement kept the district from an expensive and potentially racially divisive court fight, it set up a series of decisions that are sure to raise questions about School Board spending.

    Tuesday's workshop discussion was just the beginning, and, already, choice is proving to be as difficult to implement as some of its critics predicted. School Board members haven't begun to debate how bus routes should be configured. They are waiting for the results of a parent survey before that decision is made.

    Board members are expected to start discussing bus routes Tuesday, with a decision expected in early spring. They will be asked to decide what to do about the bus compounds before the winter holidays.

    That will not be an easy decision.

    The district's consultant told the board that unless it builds and expands existing bus compounds -- large parking lots with maintenance and office facilities -- they could face millions more in operating costs each year.

    But consultant Charles Long did not tell board members how much it would cost to follow his recommendations. Palmer said the district has not calculated that figure, partly because no one knows where the facilities would go or how many the board will approve.

    "Our original estimates were based on new drivers," Superintendent Howard Hinesley said. "We never had anticipated having to buy land and rezone land. I had no idea of the amount of money."

    Even without the dawning of choice, Long said the district's bus storage facilities are overcrowded and inefficient. Buses are stacked together, forcing drivers to work overtime to park and move them for routes, inspections and required maintenance work. One employee alone earned thousands in overtime in one year from moving buses. The compounds are so small, officials said, that more than 40 percent of minor bus accidents happen there.

    Choice will bring $6-million worth of new buses that need to be stored somewhere. Working on the assumption that the district wants to make the best use of its existing storage facilities, Long recommended:

    Building two new bus compounds to serve Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. Razing Forest Hills Elementary to expand the 49th Street bus compound to accommodate 220 buses. Head Start officials, who lease that building for $1 annually, do not know where they will move their 18 classrooms. They are working with the district and St. Petersburg city officials to find another location.

    "It's going to be a real hardship to relocate those 18 classes," board member Linda Lerner said. "I wanted to be assured that there was no other cost-effective way."

    Expand the Lealman Compound to be able to park 100 buses and park cars.

    Related to that is the question of what to do about Lealman Discovery School, which sits next to the bus compound. Hinesley said the building needs about $5-million in repairs, so he wants to explore relocating that school to Tyrone Middle School.

    Tyrone's students would then be sent to the new Thurgood Marshall Middle School or the renovated Azalea and Meadowlawn middles.

    Hinesley thinks this is a good option for several reasons. It would save the cost of repairing a building in poor shape, make good use of a middle school and potentially encourage the state to allow the district to build a new middle school in North Pinellas where there is growth.

    School Board members did not endorse the idea, but said Hinesley should study it. The school learned about the possibility this week.

    If board members don't follow Long's recommendations, he said they could park buses at empty district-owned lots. But those lots would have to be zoned to park buses and, in some cases, those lots are not close to the routes. Storing buses far from routes and buildings where maintenance work is done is the reason for Long's assertion that inefficiency could cost millions.

    Hinesley said board members will have a couple of months to mull over their options. Options for the compounds will be discussed at an Oct. 30 workshop, and Hinesley will make a recommendation about how the board should proceed during a November meeting.

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