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Several speak out against schools' travel limitations

By Sarah Campbell
scampbell@salisburypost.com
EAST SPENCER — Several teachers and parents spoke out in opposition to a Rowan-Salisbury School System administrator’s recommendation to nix out-of-state activity bus travel Monday.
Transportation Director Judy Burris made the suggestion to the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education as a way to reduce the number of miles the aging buses are racking up.
Eighteen of the district’s fleet of 45 activity buses are at least two decades old, three of which are each 27 years old.
And a total of 28 activity buses are eligible for replacement under the state’s criteria based on model year and mileage, Burris said.
Six of the buses have odometer readings of more than 200,000 miles and 29 have accumulated at least 100,000 miles.
“To be honest when I sat down and started looking at the numbers to see which buses meet the criteria I was a little shocked myself,” Burris said.
Limiting travel to within the state would shave off about 6,000 miles each year. The buses logged more than 172,000 miles last year.
Alex Silliman, an agriculture teacher at Carson High School, said that’s not going to make a dent in the overall use of the buses.
“Instead it’s just a bus sitting on that lot,” he said.
Burris is also suggesting an increase in the rate per mile from 95 cents to $1.20. At 95 cents the district is “basically breaking even,” so the additional money could be used to create an activity bus replacement fund.
At $83,000 a pop, Burris said the school system would likely be able to save up enough money to buy a new bus every two years.
“We understand the need to replace those buses and I think we are willing to accept the change in mileage cost,” said Daniel Trivette, the band director at West Rowan High School.
Burris explained that activity bus replacement falls under the school system’s capital budget.
Gene Miller, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, said the school system replaced four buses in 2009 and one in 2010.
“In the years prior to that we bought one or two a year,” he said. “It’s just hard to get enough money into the capital outlay budget to buy new buses right now.”
The school system received nearly $3.7 million for capital projects this year through the state sales tax. More than $2.2 million of that went toward the 1992 bond payment, $73,000 went to the Kannapolis City school system and $200,000 went to a reserve for the county.
The district used the remaining $1.2 million to fund things like roof replacements, boiler replacements, paving improvements and upgrades to fire alarm systems and technology infrastructure.
Capital funds will be freed up after the bond is paid off in 2016. School officials have said at least $1 million of that will likely be put toward the debt from the school’s new $6 million downtown central office building.
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Trivette spoke out against the proposed travel limitations Monday, saying the concept is flawed.
“I’ve traveled to all four corners of North Carolina just this year, I’ve been to Reidsville, Belmont, Wilmington and Western Carolina,” he said. “The only out-of-state trip, and one of the most beneficial ones, was to Rock Hill, South Carolina, it’s about an hour and 10 minute drive and we know Wilmington is a lot farther.
“So I’m not sure the parameters put in the place really make sense there.”
Kay Sitterson said her daughter probably wouldn’t have been able to attend Carson’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) trip to nationals if the district used charter buses. The trip, she said, helped her daughter land a scholarship.
“I’m a struggling single parent,” she said. “I could not have afforded that trip if it wasn’t for the activity bus. It would have been a struggle.”
Brittany Chester, a biology teacher at West Rowan High, said her education would have been limited if she hadn’t gotten to travel with West’s FFA when she was a senior at the school.
“Because of that, I am here doing what I do now,” she said. “That experience shaped and changed my life.”
Chester said charter buses discriminate against students who, like her, cannot afford to go.
“My dad had five kids and we lived on a farm, there was no way in the world we could have paid for that,” she said. “I think one thing we need to remember is that students are here because they have to be, but they stay because of interests, please don’t take away those options from them.”
Maj. Bill Lowe, a JROTC instructor at South Rowan, said limiting travel would nix important experience for his students.
“We have a program of excellence and not only do we go to competitions, but we take our young people to various colleges, not all of which are in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “To ask us to stop doing those kinds of activities would truly, truly hurt our program and cause many of these cadets to never experience the things we are trying to do to inspire that desire.”
• • •
Burris said the recommendations she made Monday are just that. She’s willing to consider other options to limit the number of miles the buses are racking up and keep students on the road.
“This is not intended to keep students from having opportunities,” she said. “This is just one effort to see something happen … I will be glad to meet with the principals and present back to you all.”
Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom said those meetings might spark some different solutions.
“That’s one of the reasons that it needed to come to the board,” she said. “Once this conversation started we knew you would be getting phone calls … that’s why we are discussing this and why we are looking for a resolution.”
Trivette asked the board to keep looking for other options.
“I’m not sure that balancing the budget on the educational opportunities that we afford our students is the greatest idea,” he said.
The school board did not take action on the issue Monday.
But Burris said a resolution is vital.
“The key is we want our students to travel, but we want them travel safely,” she said. “I will guarantee those buses are safe, but when they get a certain amount of miles they require more and more maintenance and that’s what we’re seeing with these buses.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
Twitter: twitter.com/posteducation
Facebook: facebook.com/Sarah.SalisburyPost

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