Transporting pupils is the next hurdle

Children being moved out of Gilbert Manor in the next few months will likely be able to attend their old school through the end of the school year if the parents request it, Richmond County School Superintendent Dana T. Bedden said Wednesday.

The problem could be how they get there.

Dr. Bedden, Augusta legislators and public transportation officials met Wednesday morning with the board of the Augusta Housing Authority to talk about potential problems for residents moving out of the housing complex to make way for an expansion of the neighboring Medical College of Georgia.

The school system has identified 156 school-age children who live in the complex, said Michael Shinn, the director of transportation for Richmond County schools. Of those, 48 will be moving to other public housing, and most of those have chosen Olmstead Homes, said Housing Authority Executive Director Jacob Oglesby. Of those, 21 are elementary school pupils who would most likely be switching from Joseph R. Lamar Elementary School, Mr. Oglesby said.

"If a child moves from Gilbert to Olmstead and wanted to stay in Joseph Lamar school through the end of the school year, is that possible?" authority board member Jack Widener asked.

It would be up to the school board, but the school system handles such requests routinely, and transportation is up to the family, Dr. Bedden said.

"If a parent came up right now and said, 'Can I stay? And I can get there.' We can actually sign off on it and say, 'Fine,' " Dr. Bedden said.

"The Board of Education is clear; we can make it work that they can stay. The issue becomes transportation."

Moving a child at this time of year, when they take crucial standardized tests in March and April, would be a concern, he said.

"Given the timing too for the preparation of all of those things, it would be my recommendation for us to make it happen to minimize that bad experience for these children," Dr. Bedden said.

It is unclear just how many parents will request it. Although officials began a series of discussions with residents in August, the issue wasn't raised until a public forum Dec. 27, Mr. Oglesby said. So far, the housing authority has heard from only three families, said board member the Rev. K.B. Martin.

"Let's not make it into something beyond what it really is, but be prepared to do what needs to be done for those persons who may be moving immediately," he said.

If a driver can be found, the housing authority has a bus that might be used for transporting students, Mr. Oglesby said. Augusta Public Transit has routes near all of the housing authority complexes, and some schoolchildren already use city buses to get to school, Director Heyward Johnson said.

The board asked Buddy Oldfield, the director of residential services for the housing authority, to survey the parents and talk to Mr. Shinn about what the transportation needs might be.

Some, such as Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta, wondered if the school question couldn't be solved by waiting.

"Have you considered as a board delaying the move until the end of the school year?" he asked.

The problem is that a number of units at Olmstead Homes and Peabody Apartments are open now because of renovations there, said board Chairman Rodger B. Murchison.

"The replacement housing is available now," he said. "It may not be the case in the near or distant future. So moving now is paramount."

The housing authority also can't keep units vacant for months because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development judges the agency on how quickly it turns over units, Mr. Oglesby said.

"We lose too much money," he said.

And some residents are ready to move. Of the 112 Section 8 housing vouchers requested, 89 have been issued, and three have already found units, Mr. Oglesby said.

The school issue also is probably not a problem for the 140 one-bedroom units, about half of Gilbert Manor, that are most likely filled with disabled or elderly residents, Mr. Oglesby said. Community volunteers, including some at First Baptist Church where Dr. Murchison is associate pastor, are pledging to help those residents with packing and moving.

State Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, said he was encouraged by the attitude of those in the room to smooth out any pitfalls.

"Today you saw a commitment to deal with any problem that could arise," he said.

Dr. Murchison echoed that.

"So many times we see the opposite, agencies not working together," he said. "Here we are, agencies are pulling together, trying to help a community need. I think that's very commendable."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.