It was standing room only at the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District’s board meeting Monday, Aug 5. A large group of parents, citizens and school district employees gathered to discuss, among other topics, the busing of students home from after-school activities.
Advocating the reinstatement of bus transportation, which was discontinued in November 2008 after decades of service, concerned parent Tricia Ann Stroud addressed the school board.
“I understand enrollment is down,” Stroud began. “But it does make it difficult for kids to be involved in activities if they do not have a ride home. … These children need a way to get home after school.”
Stroud said she believes that many children are missing out on after-school programs and activities.
“I believe that a lot of children are told that, ‘Hey, if you can’t get home, then you can’t do this particular activity,” Stroud asserted. She said if it is a choice between football or groceries, families have to eat, and working parents have to go to their jobs to make ends meet. “You have to look at it from the parents’ perspective,” she said
She said if the board chose to run the buses only four days, Monday through Thursday, even that would be preferable to the total lack of transportation for students participating in after-school activities.
The measure was discussed at the previous board meeting and for more than an hour and a half at the Aug. 5 meeting.
WO-C CISD Superintendent James Colbert presented the board with three options for reinstatement along with the option not to reinstate the program that was reportedly cut because of budget constraints. He also presented them with several suggestions as to what cuts could be made to rebalance the budget. Colbert said when the program was discontinued in 2008, the cost was approximately $47,000, but five years later, reinstating the program would cost, at the minimum, approximately $55,000, the least expensive option presented to the board by Colbert.
Option A as read by the superintendent was for the current system to stay in place, and transportation home would not be provided for students participating in after-school activities. That option would have no affect on the current budget approved by the board in June.
Option B was to bus the students four days per week, Monday through Thursday only, for after-school activities. There would be three buses at the high school and two buses at the middle school utilized for the service. The cost of this option was estimated at $66,000.
Option B.5 would only provide students with transportation home from away competitions. During the discussion of this option, Colbert mentioned that there could be a danger for students who are returning from away competitions in the dark of the night. He said if transportation were not provided, the students could be in danger after being forced to walk home. That option would cost an estimated $55,000.
The final option was Option C. Three buses would be provided to the high school and two to the middle school on Monday through Thursday and, in addition, would provide students transportation home after away competitions. Colbert estimated the cost of that option would be more than $121,000.
Board President Pete Amy asked Colbert for his opinion.
“Well, Chairman Amy, my recommendation would be that if we do choose to provide the service, we need to do one (option) that is not going to unbalance our budget.”
Colbert said he would not “have an issue with it as long as it did not alter the budget.”
“Our district has spent two years getting out a bad business model, and that is not easy,” Colbert said. “We do not need to go backwards and unbalance the budget.” He said that would be “foolish.”
Amy again asked, “What is your recommendation?”
“I told you my recommendation,” Colbert retorted.
“No sir, you didn’t tell me,” Amy argued.
“I gave you the recommendation I am comfortable with,” Colbert said. “Ultimately it is up to the board to approve which of the options they want to do. I don’t know that it is fair for the board to put me in the position of deciding for all seven of you.”
After some questions, Amy pointed out that no money is being added to the fund balance this year, and he said he felt there was not a good way to offset the cost of options B, B.5 or C. All the offset options would remove money from previously budgeted items. Options included the elimination of one to two maintenance positions not yet staffed but requested by the maintenance department, offsetting approximately $35,000 each for the positions, and an 8.5 percent across-the-board budget cut “for all budgets in the school district,” which would garner over $66,000, among others.
“We have no money,” Amy said.
“Oh, we have money,” Board Member Bryan “Chop” Thomas Mohammed said. “We can find money for our children. We will find the money.”
Amy said he agreed but would need to see a better solution than what had been presented to him thus far.
Muhammed said he felt the matter under discussion was a civil rights issue because the busing program previously discontinued in 2008 was implemented as the result of desegregation. African-American students were bused from their homes to previously white schools that had been integrated. He said before that, these children were often able to walk to neighborhood schools.
“When you bring children from out of their area where they used to walk to school, you bus them back,” Muhammed said. “It’s not difficult.”
Board Vice President Tony Dallas said he was not comfortable voting for transportation until he was sure how the increase to the budget would be offset.
“Option C worries me,” Colbert admitted. He said the $121,000-plus necessary to implement option C would be difficult to offset.
After much back-and-forth between Amy, Colbert and Muhammed, the district’s transportation director requested a closed, executive session be called to discuss an issue he felt needed addressing prior to the vote. After emerging from behind closed doors several minutes later, Dallas motioned that the item be tabled “in light of recent information.” No one seconded Dallas’ motion.
Amy, who was on the board that voted to discontinue busing students home from after-school activities back in 2008, made a motion that the board accept Option A, the option not to provide after-school activity transportation. Again, no one seconded the motion.
Muhammed motioned to accept Option B, the Monday through Thursday option. Board member Andrew Hayes seconded the motion, which was approved 5-2 with only Dallas and Amy voting against.
The board will vote regarding how to balance the budget, now an estimated $66,000 over until offsets are made, at the next school board meeting.