Despite objections from some parents, Columbia County schools will have new start times next year with middle and high school pupils riding the same buses.
The proposal - approved unanimously at Tuesday's meeting - puts middle and high school pupils at school from 7:50 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and elementary pupils at school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
To make the new schedules work, the school system will put middle and high school pupils on the same buses on some routes. Currently, the different school levels are on three different schedules and ride separate buses.
"I believe it will work," school Superintendent Tommy Price said. "I believe we can expect it to work without any fear."
But fear is what some parents expressed to board members before the final vote. Parents expressed concern about potential discipline problems with middle and high school pupils riding the same buses, overcrowding on those buses and traffic congestion around some schools.
"Saving dollars just doesn't add up to good sense if we're putting our children at risk," said Pam Smith, whose children attend Bel Air Elementary.
Parents also expressed concern about the the impact on elementary pupils starting 25 minutes later than they do now.
Karen Gross said the elementary school time change would conflict with her work schedule. And, she said, if research shows older students do better if they start later, it also shows younger children do better earlier in the day.
"To me this change goes against the quality of education Columbia County stands for," Ms. Gross said.
Board member Debbi Brooks said the school system should make sure the changes don't negatively affectpupils and adjust the system as needed.
The idea was first proposed to allow high school students a later starting time from the current 7:25 a.m. However, school officials have said combining the middle and high school routes will save the school system approximately $350,000 a year - most of the savings from reducing drivers' pay.
Mr. Price presented a proposal to board members that would give drivers opportunities to earn money for bus inspections, staff meetings, field trips and the time used for bus maintenance. The total cost to the system would be $67,225. The system might also allow bus drivers to work as substitutes with the school nutrition program, something they've not been allowed to do in the past.
Mr. Price, however, said he had not discussed the proposal with bus drivers.
And, Mr. Price said, improved cameras will be installed in buses for added security. Drivers also will be asked to separate middle and high school pupils who ride the same buses. Some bus assistants will be available for routes that experience problems, he said.
School officials also plan to meet with the Columbia County Sheriff's Department and engineers to discuss ways to prevent traffic congestion around facilities such as Lakeside and Greenbrier high schools, where one road leads in and out of the school complexes.
Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, ext. 112, or firstname.lastname@example.org.