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Anniston could cut bus routes as student body shrinks

Transportation issues highlight city school board meeting

CST buses

CST buses lined up in their lot in Anniston on Thursday.

Anniston City Schools may trim the number of routes its buses run next school year, another nod to the school system's shrinking enrollment.

But first, the school system will have to figure out who will provide bus service this fall —  and it will have to work out the details of transporting students during a pandemic.

“That's one of the things we don't know,” Superintendent Ray Hill said of social distancing on buses. “We're putting plans together, and we're getting advice from the state.”

Hill and other city staff were on hand at the regular meeting of the Anniston Board of Education on Thursday at Anniston Middle School — a brief meeting with a sparse, socially distanced audience.

The first item of business was a report from federal programs director Marlon Jones, who told the board that the staff hopes to reduce the number of routes run by buses in the coming year.

The school system has 1,678 students, spread among Anniston Middle School, Anniston High and three elementary schools. The school-age population has been in decline statewide in recent years, but the drop has been particularly fast in the Model City, which has been shrinking since the closure of Fort McClellan two decades ago.

The system spends about $1.9 million per year on transportation, according to its most recent audit. School officials have been looking for ways to save money, including having school officials drive students to special events instead of paying outside bus drivers.

“We could have certain school officials obtain their commercial drivers’ licenses,” Jones said.

The school system has for many years contracted its bus service out to Crescent School Transportation, though Jones suggested that could change soon. Bids for the next school year's contract are due next week, he said, adding he wasn't sure the school system and CST would be able to agree on terms.

After the meeting, Hill declined to say how much money the system hopes to spend on buses next year, saying that's part of the bidding process. He said the system has asked for things that CST didn't initially seem inclined to provide.

“We want to have buses that are less than 10 years old," Hill said. He said CST buses have heat, but the board wants both heat and air conditioning.

Attempts to reach CST on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Board members asked if the system was able even to tell bus contractors when the school year will start. School officials said they could not.

The board voted months ago to begin school in early August. Hill said he plans to send a survey to parents to see if they're comfortable starting school that early, or if they want to wait a few weeks for in-person classes because of the pandemic.

Board members have mentioned other possibilities for the next school year, including a blend of online and in-person learning that would have students in school buildings for shorter times, though there's no firm plan yet. Hill said that no matter what the pandemic brings, some things are not negotiable.

“We're still responsible for 180 days,”  Hill said, citing the state's required days of instruction.

The school board voted to move some of its kindergarten teachers to the former Cobb Elementary, now home to Anniston's pre-kindergarten program. The board earlier this month approved a preliminary plan to move all the city's kindergarten classes to Cobb, another consolidation plan inspired by the city's shrinking student body.

Coronavirus is still the biggest wild card in all those plans. Hill said social distancing rules may mean students require more classroom space than they did last school year. Buses may seem too empty now, he said, but social distancing may reduce the numbers of students a bus can carry.

“That may hurt us when it comes to the price on the buses, too,” he said. “Because we might not be able to say, at the end of the day, that you have to haul this many.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.