Because of several years of cuts in the state allocation for student transportation, Whitfield County Schools officials say they need to spend approximately $1.5 million this year to replace at least 20 buses that have been in operation 10 years or more.

Superintendent Katie Brochu told the Whitfield County Board of Education at a work session Tuesday that, while state monies allocated for bus replacement never cover the total amount needed, the local system is losing a large amount of available state dollars because of its aging fleet.

“We’re losing about $700,000 a year in reimbursement dollars if all those buses were in running condition,” Brochu said. “We hate to leave significant dollars left on the table every year. We’re going to have to find a way to recoup that, and it’s going to take a big chunk (of money now).”

Board vice chairman Tim Trew suggested coupling the cost of the buses into an educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) the system hopes to add to the ballot in November. The SPLOST, which would be the county’s third, was originally planned as a way to fund new schools that a redistricting committee recently proposed would help deal with a growing student population. The SPLOST proposal is still being developed, and no dollar amount has been finalized.

“I’m of the mind to let taxpayers put this on the next SPLOST to take the burden off property owners,” Trew said. “It’s a smart way to do it in my mind. Being able to supplement state dollars with a sales tax is more fair.”

Board chairman Charles Oliver agreed.

“Buses are just as much a part of the infrastructure as school buildings,” Oliver said. “We’ve got to buy buses — the requirements are what they are. We’ve got to wrap our minds around it.”

Randy Cook, Whitfield County Schools’ director of transportation, said he plans to replace all 1991-93 bus models this year, leaving about 20 more 1994-95 models in the county fleet as spares for the high schools to use for special events. The state says buses must be less than 10 years old to be used to run routes that transport students to and from school.

“We have a small window for ordering these buses and get them on line,” Cook said. “New regulations come into effect every year that make purchases more expensive. There’s an urgency in these dealings because anybody who wants to run diesels a year from now normally orders between January and March. If we delay in making a decision, we won’t be able to buy.”

Board member Holly Ridley expressed concern about how some members of the community might receive the SPLOST proposal.

“I’m not worried about the support of our parents,” Ridley said, “but we’ve got to reach out to (retirees) who vote en masse and let them know this is the fairest way and won’t affect their property taxes. Most people don’t know the difference between an educational SPLOST and one from the county commission.”

Brochu said she is developing a financial proposal the system will present to the community — one she hopes will make an impact not only on parents, but also to the 65 percent of the population that doesn’t have a direct connection with the student population.

Also at the work session:

• Si Yim, director of administrative technology, and Mike Ewton, director of safety and security, made a proposal to contract with “Connect Ed,” a service that would allow the district to make mass phone calls in the case of an emergency or just as a general information source.

“Last year, we had a bus accident. Phone lines can get clogged, and it’s hard to call in a timely manner,” Ewton said. “You can also use it a la carte to announce PTA meetings or snow days. It’s a tool I really think we need to look at.”

Calls can be subdivided to go to parents of students of a particular class or bus if a message is not needed for all 13,000 Whitfield County students, Yim said.

“It’s not worth buying the service just to use once a year for emergencies, but we can use it as a communication tool for a flat fee,” he said. “We just don’t want to call parents three times a day and become ‘spam’ callers.”

The flat fee for unlimited usage is $3.60 per student.

The board could take action on these issues and more at its next scheduled meeting on Tuesday at noon at the central office.

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