Whether it’s purchasing new buses to replace old ones or implementing route options during inclement weather, the Pocahontas County Schools transportation department, headed by director Ruth Bland has one thing and one thing only on it’s mind – the safety of the children.
Since she became transportation director, Bland has purchased seven new buses – one of which was delivered last week.
“It’s beautiful,” she said of the new bus.
The new buses come equipped with all the bells and whistles – tinted glass, safety lights, safety arm to direct passengers across the road and much more.
Purchasing a new bus costs a pretty penny – a new 77 passenger school bus is approximately $90,000. But, Bland said, the buses are not purchased with local funds.
“I can only purchase it on money that is given to us by the state,” she said.
With 20 bus routes and the terrain and weather drivers are expected to drive in, it’s easy to see why school buses need to be replaced.
“At one point, when I started, we had about 1.3 children per square mile and now we’re down to 1.1,” Bland said. “We’ve got twenty bus runs on around nine hundred square miles. We have areas where there are bus runs where there are few children – somewhere up to three to four miles between stops.”
Along with the regular bus routes, the board of education implemented snow routes last year, which are used to lessen the number of snow days when there is an especially bad winter.
“The purpose of doing the snow routes is if we get into a long stretch of days off, instead of losing these days, we would at least pick up a minimum number of students and still be able to call it an instructional day,” Bland said. “On a snow route day, they just pick up along the main road or at designated spots that the driver has established with the parents.”
Snow routes were used on two occasions last year, and 60 percent of the student body attended school.
Bland said snow routes are intended for years when there are multiple days lost due to snow and the schools are in danger of going until mid-June like last year.
“One year we had twenty-three snow days,” she said. “When you start getting to the point where it’s getting pretty bad, then that’s when we implement the snow routes.”
The snow routes also ensure that students won’t be in school in June when the classrooms are hot.
“It is quite uncomfortable when a classroom is ninety degrees,” Bland said. “First of all, the children are so uncomfortable and second of all, the teacher can’t focus on good instruction if you have kids that are uncomfortable. It’s just one of those things that we enacted to alleviate going to school during the very hot part of June and to minimize the number of snow days, and the time we have instruction.”
With the board of education at a point in the year when it is trying to tighten its belt, Bland said it is possible she will have to cut bus runs and/or bus drivers.
As a way to avoid cuts, Bland has taken steps to combine bus runs and reduce number of drivers she needs. As they retire this year, bus drivers will not be replaced.
Bland is trying to lower the number of routes and drivers because the West Virginia Department of Education office of finance suggested the board office find ways to reduce the number of service personnel it employs.
Each county receives funding through the state aid formula. The state provides funding depending on the number of students the county serves. At this time, Pocahontas County is paid for 1,400 students. Those funds are used to hire professional and service personnel.
Although Pocahontas County does not have 1,400 students, it is still considered to be over on the service personnel roll by 11 positions, meaning the state believes 11 positions can be abolished.
For Bland, it’s hard to imagine cutting any service personnel, especially bus drivers because the buses are needed no matter how many students there are in the county and due to the size of the county, it is hard for fewer drivers to get the students to school in a timely fashion.
“What is frustrating to me is, yes, our enrollment has dropped; yes, we get funding for 1,400 kids, but when your enrollment drops, we don’t have forty kids that have moved along the line of one area of Pocahontas County,” Bland said. “It’s from all over the county.”
When talking about cuts, Bland is reminded of something a former board of education member said.
“Bruce McKean said this many, many years ago when he was on the board,” she said. “When you hear from the state you have to cut three percent out of your budget, it’s like – let’s take Kanawha County. Kanawha County says three percent out of their budget, ‘okay, we’re going to be able to cut off our little toe with that.’ With Pocahontas County, you cut off the leg.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org