Joe Tate, the father of a Richmond County 10th-grader, sat in the auditorium of Academy of Richmond County on Tuesday and waited.
He got there 20 minutes earlier than he had to, just to be sure he got a seat.
There was a worry weighing on him, and he heard about a meeting where he’d have a chance to get it off his chest.
“I pay for my child to have a cellphone so I can get in touch with him immediately,” Tate said. “The schools don’t let them have phones anymore. I pick up my son every day from school. If he’s late, I have no idea where he is. He can’t call.”
About 120 parents and bus drivers attended a Richmond County Board of Education public forum held Tuesday evening at Richmond Academy. It was meant to address concerns brought up in the first few weeks of the school year. Questions covered curriculum and diversity, but the bulk of the discussion focused on problems with buses and the rules about cellphones.
Questions were submitted before the forum, and the panel of school board members and administrators answered with prepared statements.
For more than an hour, moderators Cher Best and Minnesota Fatz, of radio station WKSP-FM (96.3), presented questions.
Some were opportunities to clear up misconceptions.
After a question about why students don’t have enough textbooks, Cheryl Jones, the executive director for elementary schools, said department heads recently reported having no shortage of books.
To a question about why most students don’t have correct class schedules, Jones said that 95 percent of high school students received their final schedules on the first day.
To the several questions regarding cellphones, Lynn Warr, the executive director of high schools, reminded the audience that cellphones are not allowed on campus, even for after-school activities. She also said it’s unlikely that rule will be changed.
Best read a question asking what was being done to make sure buses are safe.
Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley said 28 buses have security cameras, and his department just received funding for 93 more.
Wiley fielded another question asking why there are late buses and inefficient routes every year.
In the first few weeks of school, students have been dropped home hours after dismissal because of adjustments to new routes and a lack of consistent drivers.
Wiley said it is difficult to plan for how many students will be riding on each route when Augusta is such a transient city.
“You plan based on the data from the information you had last year,” Wiley said. “The main thing this year is one word: change. And we had to make adjustments.”
Wiley said his department is working to correct routes and address drivers’ concerns, but that it’s not easy to address everyone’s concerns when there are several factors affecting operation.
On the first day of school, his office had 5,511 calls. There is also a problem with absent drivers. School board Vice President Venus Cain said 20 percent of drivers call out daily.
Several bus drivers in the audience said drivers are absent or quit because of low morale.
During the last half hour of the forum, moderators opened up the floor to audience members who wanted to address the panel.
At that time, the biggest issue brought up was communication.
“We’re tired of being mistreated, belittled, talked to any kind of way,” bus driver Maurice Boyd said.
Several parents and bus drivers challenged school board members about the attention they are giving these issues.
Parent Cynthia Harris got emotional when asking board members why there aren’t more opportunities for parents to get involved in school board meetings before members vote.
School board President Alex Howard said all meeting agendas are posted in advance on the district’s Web site, but that the site could be more user-friendly.
The end of the forum became a back-and-forth between board members and the audience – with parents and drivers asking why the board isn’t doing more and board members responding that they have been proactive.
All agreed that the priority is the children.
“It’s my goal to see a child walk across the stage instead of going to jail,” Cain said. “The personal attacks and all the other stuff, I’m not going to worry about it.”