Worry about overcrowding buses ends service to city schools’ tuition-free zones

Published 9:49 am Monday, August 3, 2015

City high school students living in tuition-free county zones no longer will be able to ride the bus to school.

John Hutchins, director of federal programs and transportation for Elizabethton City Schools, said there were six students using the service as of last year.

“We’ve had to discontinue the county routes,” Hutchins said. “For the past two years, the number of riders that are using this service has dwindled.”

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About six years ago when the city began transportation services to the tuition-free zones, Hutchins said there were roughly 35 city students living in the county riding the bus to Elizabethton High School.

While the number of city students living in the county who are using the service has decreased, other zones within the city limits have increased.

“We’ve seen an increase in the East Side and Harold McCormick zones,” he said. “We’re concerned about overcrowding buses.”

This is why bus No. 29 will no longer make tuition-free stops. Instead it will pick up students in the Lynnwood/Lynn Ridge and Arney Hill communities.

“We are shifting focus to those areas,” Hutchins said. “We’re almost filling a bus with those four stops. By moving them over to bus No. 29 we’re going to be able to reduce the number of students on the other two buses at Harold McCormick and East Side. This should take care of those situations for the time being.”

Hutchins urges all who use the bus transportation service to pay close attention to the schedule this year.

“Families need to look closely at the changes,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid any confusion.”

Hutchins wants to make sure that elementary students who used to ride bus No. 31 don’t panic if it drives by without stopping. It’s merely been reassigned to another area to ease overcrowding. Those students will now ride bus No. 31.

As for the students in the city’s tuition-free zone?

“Those high school students would have to find another way to get to school,” he said.

Some of those students may be old enough to drive themselves to school, he said. They could also ride with parents or carpool with a neighbor or friend. There was about a 25-year span when students in tuition-free zones were not offered this service by the city school transportation department. Prior to that, it was the county bus fleet that transported those students.

“Those students matter and we don’t want to lose them as a result of this,” he said.

Now that the need has reduced, Hutchins regrets having to pull the service.

“We hope in the future we’ll be able to offer it again,” he said. “Never say never, but I also don’t want to give any false hope.”

Hutchins has been considering the most cost effective way to deal with transporting school children in a safe and secure manner. The plan to cut tuition-free service and shuffle the routes around a bit is the best option for now, he said.

“Until we can get added drivers and buses this has to work,” he said. “We’re sad we’re having to go down this route.”

Currently, there is not enough funding to add another bus to the fleet, but there is money available to replace buses within the state’s requirements.

“I hate to start equating things to dollars and cents,” he said. “It’s not just financial. It’s a matter of we cant afford to put students on buses that are overcrowded.”

One aspect the transportation department does have in the budget is the hiring of bus drivers. However, there’s not as much interest in the position as Hutchins would like to see. They are seeking full- and part-time employees, he said.

“We can have all the buses in the world, but if you have don’t drivers then it won’t work,” he said. “We certainly want to encourage anyone who is interested in driving a bus to contact us here at city schools.”

For more information, go online to ecschools.net, which is updated daily. Look for the tab labeled “Bus Routes.”