Cook: The wheels on the bus

Cook: The wheels on the bus

January 31st, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The phone rang as I was crossing the street. A very driveable, ice-free street, I might add.

"Good afternoon parents. This is an official message from the Hamilton County Department of Education," the voice said. "Due to icy roads and parking lot conditions and safety concerns ... "

You know the rest.

For the fourth straight day, Hamilton County schools have been canceled. It started Tuesday when the meanest half-inch of snow ever to fall in Chattanooga turned the city into a hot mess.

Wednesday was still icy. But Thursday? There was more ice in my nightcap than on the streets.

And today? It's supposed to be partly cloudy and 50.

Due to icy roads and parking lot conditions ...

It must be the buses.

School bus drivers are like the movie mafia don stroking the white cat in the armchair; they call the shots. We cancel school -- like today -- not on behalf of car drivers, but for buses, fearing they might carom into back-road ditches where the sun doesn't shine, and fearing the liability that may then follow.

And this is not a bad thing. Bus drivers belong to that thankless group of people who care for the welfare and safety of our kids in untold ways. My kids love the bus. I love that they love the bus.

But something about the four straight canceled days has me wondering ... perhaps it's time to cut school bus funding altogether.

They're trying to do that in Muncie, Ind., thinking about it in Seattle, and probably will in Indy. USA Today reported in 2009 that nearly a quarter of surveyed schools were cutting or reducing transportation services. This week, as snow fell on Alabama, schools in Muscle Shoals weren't canceled. Guess why.

"No buses, no school delay," reads the headline from WAFF-TV.

Let's reroute the $14.6 million we spend every year on school transportation in Hamilton County. Every elementary school gets a full-time art teacher. And music teacher. Librarians could have an annual budget, something they don't have right now.

(Yes, it's true. Not one cent goes to our schools' libraries. They have to beg).

Every school gets a school resource officer. All those miscellaneous things like, oh, books in classrooms and copy paper for teachers are suddenly funded.

And we might still have a few million leftover to play with.

Or keep that $14 million in the annual budget and use it for teacher raises.

By canceling school bus service, schools don't have to start at zero dark thirty. Instead, teenagers and their still-maturing biological clocks can get to school at the humane time of 9 a.m. instead of 7.

Currently, our buses run a three-tiered system, which means drivers run three different routes each day, making it impossible to alter start schedules.

Yet without buses, everybody could start school at 9. Walk, drive, carpool, bike -- just get your kids to school on time, and when you do, all these good things follow.

Kids would retain more information and knowledge. Multiple studies show how early start times are detrimental for teenagers, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even calling school start times a matter of public health.

If you start at 9, you end at 5, which would keep kids off the streets during that trouble-making time each afternoon before dinner.

School busing is a matter of equality, providing transportation to kids who may not have it otherwise. So to cancel school bus service means we undoubtedly have to replace it somehow.

"CARTA," said Dr. Roger Thompson.

Thompson, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor who's devoted years to this issue, believes school start times are a matter of health, safety and justice. One model he envisions is that CARTA can replace school buses. Plus, CARTA can use the money earned by jacking up the parking fees at downtown meters to expand its routes into previously unserved neighborhoods.

And think of all the help we could get from the folks at Access America, who are some of the best thinkers on logistics and transportation.

Thompson spoke about a lawyer he met who is considering a class-action lawsuit against all school systems that start too early. Thompson called it "intentional harm and injury."

"Helping all of our teens succeed in school enables graduation, employment and career choices," he said. "Let's create a think tank outside the circle of HCDE and seriously examine possibilities."

And quick, before the next snowstorm.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.