School board hears bus complaints

NEW CUMBERLAND – Parents have joined with some Hancock County school bus drivers to express their displeasure with a decision to move all Weirton buses to the New Cumberland garage at the start of the new school year.

Joseph and Carolyn Thomas, of Weirton, took their concerns to the school board on Monday, saying they think the drive time from New Cumberland to Weirton is too long and could possibly pose a threat to student safety.

The Thomases have four children, three of whom attend Hancock County Schools. On Monday, they presented a petition they said has the signatures of 907 Hancock County residents who are dissatisfied with the busing decision.

“I am concerned about my kids,” Joseph Thomas said. “Putting the buses in New Cumberland is a safety hazard.”

Thomas said it will take the buses too long to get to Weirton in the event of an emergency. He also said he believes the New Cumberland bus garage is not equipped to handle the 14 buses from Weirton and that putting them all in one location will lead to increased mileage and fuel costs.

In doing so, Thomas was reiterating concerns first raised by representatives of the Hancock County Educational Support Professional Association in January and again in May.

Weirton bus driver Terryn Risk, who attended Monday’s board meeting with his wife, Diana, also a bus driver, said making the Weirton drivers operate out of New Cumberland is wasteful and inefficient.

“Running 14 buses back and forth twice a day is a huge mismanagement of funds,” he said. “In the event of an emergency, in order for us to evacuate the students, the Weirton drivers would have to go to the Career Center to get the buses, which would keep the children in harm’s way that much longer.”

But Superintendent Suzan Smith said it makes sense to have one bus garage because of Hancock County’s small size and the central location of the New Cumberland garage, which sits across the street from the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center at Rockyside Road and state Route 2.

She said the issue was studied by the district’s transportation and maintenance departments.

“We have looked at all of this,” Smith said. “We did look at the different options, but the most economical and best option is for us to have one bus garage.”

The fact that there will be only one Weirton elementary school, instead of three, starting in the 2014-15 school year will simplify things greatly, she said.

Smith said Brooke, Ohio and other, larger West Virginia counties have single, centrally located bus garages. Previously, Hancock County had a bus facility next to the old Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton, in addition to the one in New Cumberland.

The school board sold the Weirton property, along with Newell Memorial Field, to the Hancock County commissioners in December 2012. That sale prompted the decision to move the Weirton-based buses, as well as the construction of a new maintenance facility behind the Career Center, she said.

Smith said the New Cumberland garage is equipped with sufficient lighting, fencing and cameras and soon will have a wash bay.

“We feel it’s the best place for the buses,” she said, noting that the mechanics also are located there.

As he did in May, school board President Jerry Durante defended Smith’s decision on Monday, saying it was outside the board’s purview.

“I just don’t want to get into the mechanics of this because, frankly, we don’t know enough about it,” he said.

Durante said the board, however, will monitor the policy once the school year starts.

“I can assure you that the board of education is very interested in the safety of the children,” he said. “We will hold (Smith) accountable for every decision. … We do like to know if decisions are made that are detrimental to the county.”

Thomas said he also is concerned with the decision to combine middle school and high school bus routes in the 2014-2015 school year, calling it a “grave mistake. … I do not want my children to be influenced by high school seniors and juniors.”

Smith said Hancock County’s drop in enrollment in the past two years makes joining the middle school and high school routes a possibility because it creates more space on the buses.

“We feel we can consolidate the runs and save a tremendous amount of money,” Smith said. “It is going to lessen the wear and tear on the buses, and it will save on fuel.”

Smith said some routes already put elementary school and high school students on the same bus, and no problems have been reported.

Combining routes means Oak Glen Middle School and Weir Middle School students will start their days an hour earlier and get out earlier, Smith said.

High school students will arrive at approximately 7:10 a.m. and depart at 2:40 p.m., while middle school students will arrive at approximately 7:15 a.m. and depart at 2:45 p.m., she said.

Elementary school students will arrive at approximately 7:40 a.m. and depart at 2 p.m., she said.

Smith said most buses will arrive back at the New Cumberland bus garage by 3:30 p.m., which will improve convenience for after-school extracurricular activities.