After another year of being financially strained, South Colonie Central School District is cutting midday transportation for universal pre-K students, forcing parents to find other ways to get their children to school.
At the Board of Education meeting Tuesday, April 22, the board adopted a $95.2 million budget that reduced the hours of 23 bus drivers by eliminating midday UPK bus runs.
School Superintendent Jonathan Buhner said those drivers are going to have their hours cut from eight to six hours, making them part-time employees.
“We’re eliminating transportation for UPK and adjusting some activity runs. It’s going to mean for 23 drivers that they will be going to part-time status,” said Director of Transportation Peter Tunny. “Normally, the way it works is that the drivers come in 6:30-9:30 a.m. then come back at 11:30 a.m. to drive UPK students, and then come back 1:30-4:30 p.m.”
Tunny said that morning and afternoon runs would remain the same. Declining enrollment has also allowed to the district to consolidate some of the runs, which put more students on each bus. Tunny was not sure if there would still be a 5:30 p.m. late run to pick students up from clubs or classes. The late runs that will still be offered will run a longer route and contain more students.
A statement from the district said the adjustments will save $163,000 next year.
Having a growing number of students on each bus without an aide isn’t something that drivers are looking forward to after already carrying more passengers than they would like.
A South Colonie bus driver for 15 years, Jack Pulver said that driving a bus full of kids is not an easy task. He added bus drivers have to drive, as well as watch the kids on the bus to ensure they are behaving properly.
“People respect teachers with 27 or 30 kids in a classroom. That’s a lot of people, and we know that. Try doing that at 40 miles per hour going down Central Avenue … And you want to put more kids on our buses; 45 to 50 kids,” said Pulver.
Aside from the unintentional consequence of making things more difficult on drivers, Buhner understands the necessity and importance of getting kids into a classroom at young age.
“When you look at the basic concept of a public school, it is to close a gap to make sure that all kids receive a sound education so they can be contributing members of society. Kids that come from backgrounds where they don’t have as much as other kids don’t get the experiences reading and writing at home most of the other kids get,” said Buhner. “Being in the school and getting ahead on reading and literacy will help them. Kids that are caught up by third grade have better chances to succeed. If kids are doing well early, they won’t need as many interventions as they proceed through the system.
“We feel bad. Ask anyone on the board. That’s something the district has paid for, that’s something the grant doesn’t really cover, since we’re down almost $3 million in aid. We lost $16 million in state aid because of the GEA. People keep saying, ‘You keep saying that,’ but the reality is it’s a boatload of money,” said Buhner.
Buhner said that transportation for UPK programs is not mandatory. Many schools don’t even have universal full-day kindergarten, but the district began that four years ago, and it has had good results.
“We’re one of the few districts in the state that were actually providing that transportation. We have to decide, do we cut AP classes, special education, music and arts? And we went with buses for UPK to keep those other programs,” said Buhner.
A fifth-grade teacher at Roessleville Elementary School, Donna Thompson says the cuts to transportation are going to make it more difficult for less fortunate children to attend school. Other cuts in the elementary education department are making the classroom environment more difficult for teachers to educate students the best they can.
“We have larger class sizes, and we have less support for our neediest students. In our schools it’s very important that we have social workers, and we’ve lost that in the past and it’s not being reinstated. Our kids need that,” said Thompson.
“They’re not busing the pre-K kids, so what we’re afraid of is that the kids that really need to be in pre-K, they might be in families that don’t have transportation. So, that might prevent some kids that would have been invited not to be able to attend,” added Thompson.
School officials said they would keep pressure on the state to reinstate funds or provide grants for programs that will help children have a better education and make the job easier on their staff, but right now their options are limited.
“We’re going to rely on parents for transportation. There are no special transportation programs, unfortunately. It’s obviously troubling times here. Some of them have been full-time drivers since 1998, so it’s had quite the impact on us,” said Tunny. “We’re hoping next year through the state we can get some state funding back to restore some of the aides. The aides will remain for special needs buses.”