Some Houston parents upset about new bus policy

WARNER ROBINS — A recent change in school bus procedures by the Houston County school system has some parents upset.

Those who live on dirt roads were informed by letter in mid-March that in the event of heavy rains, the buses would not be allowed to travel on the possibly slick roads to pick up or drop off their children. Instead, the buses would stop where they normally leave paved roads to enter the dirt roads and pick up or drop off the children there.

With heavy rains a few times in the past couple of weeks, transportation director Frank Scott said there have been three or four days when the buses have been kept off the dirt roads.

That has some parents upset with school transportation officials and county officials in charge of the roads.

“We’ve been coming to you for 20 years to have our road paved, and now the board of education won’t pick up our children if the road is muddy,” Wycile Williams told the county commissioners at their meeting this month. “We need your help.”

She also appeared at the school board meeting last week to ask that the policy be reversed.

Williams lives on Williams Circle, which runs between Old Vienna and Whitfield roads in the southwest corner of the county.

Tim Ross and Gino Williamson, who both live on the unpaved portion of Terrell Road off Elko Road in south Houston, said they didn’t believe the change was necessary.

“I grew up here, and the bus always made it by to get me, and the roads weren’t kept as good back then,” Ross said. “I think it’s that these drivers aren’t as good.”

Williamson said he and others who live on the road are able to travel it fine, even in heavy rain.

“One of my neighbors drives a school bus, and she comes in and out of here every day with no trouble,” Williamson said. “We pay our taxes same as everyone else, so they should drive the buses down here or pave the road instead.”

School Superintendent David Carpenter said the change was made to ensure the safety of the children riding the buses.

“Other counties do the same thing,” he said. “Most days we can travel the dirt roads OK, even in regular rain. But we’ve had some very heavy rain in recent weeks, and some of those roads become really slick. Even then, if they can stay in the middle of the road, the buses are usually OK, but if they meet someone and have to get over to the side, those heavy buses are more likely to slide off the road.”

Carpenter said one of the county’s buses did slide into a ditch on a muddy dirt road earlier this year, which led to the change in policy.

“None of the children were hurt, we had our nurses check them all,” he said.

But Carpenter said the family of one of the children has since filed a claim against the system’s insurance company.

Carpenter said Scott, who lives on the south end of the county, drives the dirt roads on rainy days to see if they are passable.

If not, he activates an automated telephone system to alert parents that the buses will not run their roads.

“The calls go out about 5:30 a.m. in the morning, and then again about 1 p.m. if we aren’t going to run in the afternoon,” Scott said. “That lets people know to bring their children to the paved roads or take them to school themselves.”

Ross said he has yet to receive a call when the buses aren’t coming, but Williamson said he has.

“But it still is a hardship,” Williamson said. “Either the kids have to walk about a quarter of a mile in the rain, or I have to be late for work to take them.”

Carpenter said children walking in the rain to meet the bus is not limited to those living on the dirt roads.

“Most of the time, we drop the children living in rural areas off at their home, because they usually live farther apart,” Carpenter said. “But in town, we don’t stop at every house. We have stops spaced out in the neighborhoods, so children always have had to walk to meet the bus. We don’t want anyone walking a mile to get to the bus, and we’ll make some adjustments if that is happening, but I think in most cases it is not much more than a hundred yards or so.”

Scott said that anyone who is not receiving the alert calls should contact his office at 929-7897 so their number can be added or changed.

He said the new policy affects only about 40 children in 27 families out of the more than 25,000 Houston County school students.

“And this is only a few days a year when we have really heavy rain,” he added.

As for maintaining and paving dirt roads, Commission Chairman Ned Sanders and operations director Tommy Stalnaker say the county has sales tax revenues set aside to pave more roads and is committed to keeping dirt roads in shape until they can be paved.

“We have a list of roads to pave and have the money designated, but the problem we have is in obtaining right of ways,” Sanders said. “Some people want the roads paved, but others don’t.”

Those who don’t want their road paved say they enjoy the rural aspect of where they live, they fear it could create more traffic by making the road an attractive shortcut for others, or that it could lead to higher property taxes by making their land more valuable.

Stalnaker said in his 38 years with the county, he has never known of a dirt road being paved unless all of the residents agreed to give the right of way necessary to widen the road or straighten curves for the paving.

“We’ve never condemned land to pave a dirt road, and if 98 percent give the right of way and then you pay the 2 percent who don’t, then all the others will come back and want to be paid, and we couldn’t afford that,” he said. “So until we get all the right of ways, we can’t pave the road, and that’s the case with most of these roads in question.”

Stalnaker said he was surprised when he learned of the letter because he believes the county’s road department keeps the dirt roads in good shape.

“We have 65 miles of dirt roads, and we keep two graders going all the time keeping them scraped and maintained,” he said. “We’ve had state Department of Transportation people tell us we have some of the best dirt roads in the state.”

Stalnaker said even in the recent heavy rains, no dirt roads had to be closed.

“Our crews drive them to keep check. We drive them in big 2 1/2-ton trucks as big as school buses, and we drive them in light pickup trucks, and we don’t have any trouble.

And all the people who live on them are able to go and come.

“But I’ve talked with David (Carpenter) and I know they are just trying to be committed to safety for the children, so we’ll keep the roads as well as we can.”

Carpenter also said the letter wasn’t a slap at the commissioners or road department.

“They do the best job they can. This is all about the safety of our children,” he said.

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.