Several irate parents were in attendance at the Newton County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night to voice their complaints about the limited amount of transportation at the system’s primary and secondary theme schools.There were 13 people who signed up prior to the start of the meeting to speak, but as the night wore on many began speaking out of turn, adding their voices to the cacophony. And although some parents added additional complaints to their speech, all of the parents were there to talk about the lack of door-to-door transportation of the theme school at Fairview Elementary and Clements Middle.
A parent concerned that her middle school child was being told that she couldn’t walk home was quickly told that officials at the Newton County School System would speak with the school administration and remedy that. But while some parents wanted their children to be able to walk home from school, others were concerned about seeing children doing that exact thing. Other concerns were for class size, which is set by the state, not the county, and some parents voiced issues with the number of children to a seat on the buses, which the board agreed to look into.
But every parent who spoke seemed to have a common complaint, and that was the limited transportation issue for the parental involvement theme schools.
"Initially parents were told that transportation would be provided in the Liberty (formerly Clements school) zone," said NCSS Superintendent Dr. Steve Whatley. "All others were told transportation would be provided only from pickup points. On March 18 it was announced that transportation would be provided on a limited basis to and from designated stops throughout the district. It was changed effective Monday, August 17. The afternoon change was to establish parent pickup points only within the Live Oak/Liberty zones."
All other students who attended the theme schools would have to meet at centralized pick-up and drop-off points or have transportation to and from school each day. After school care is available — though it is full at this point — at both theme schools, and the NCSS is working on hiring more staff so that the program can be expanded.
"Morning pickup within the Clements zone is continuing for theme school students," said Whatley. "Only the afternoon parent pickup at drop off points was started. All other residents of the county attending the theme schools either ride a morning shuttle from parent drop off points or are taken to school by the parent. In the afternoon all parents either pickup at the school or at designated parent pickup points."
One parent, Catherine Morgan, said that she lived moments from Clements theme school — closer than Liberty Middle where her son would be bused should he attend his zoned school.
"I don’t understand why the buses were taken at all," she said. "I’m still paying my taxes — am I going to get some sort of reimbursement for that? I had higher expectations [for the theme schools] and I’m not really sure we’re seeing any of the promises that were made."
"For a lot of parents this is their home district where bus transportation would be provided," said parent Sheree McMillan. "Clements theme school is not a private school; it is a public school with a theme school initiative, and with that in mind transportation is to be provided to and from school."
But, according to Dana Tofig Director of Communications for the Georgia Department of Education, public school systems are not required to provide transportation to any student, although most, if not all of them, do. Board member Cathy Dobbs said that surrounding counties do not provide transportation for their theme schools.
Michael Calloway stood and spoke to the board about the struggles of having two working parents and four students in theme schools.
"Everything was kosher for the first week — it was beautiful," he said. "And then in the middle of the game you guys change it up. You’re talking about $700 or $800 worth of school clothes for four kids that we just bought and no one’s talking about reimbursing us for the clothes or the after-school care. I just wish you guys would have a little more compassion for us," he said.
As the evening wore on, the parents in attendance became more unruly, clapping loudly during parental comments and talking when Bates attempted to explain things to them.
"This decision that was made — giving parents only three days — is completely unacceptable," said Lisbeth Perez-Cox. "It is not fair after my child was promised transportation to and from home, not to and from some parking lot, and now all of a sudden it’s being taken away," she said. "It’s not fair to the parents and it’s not fair to the students. I do not have the resources or the time to pick up my child," she said of the parental involvement theme school. "It’s just not right. Suddenly I’m supposed to be OK with picking my child up from some bus stop."
Bates, who had kept a list of questions and complaints throughout the meeting, attempted to address some of the parents concerns, letting all parents know that transportation to and from their zoned school is still available.
"If you think we sit up here and take these decisions lightly, you couldn’t be more wrong," said an emotional-sounding Bates. At which point, many parents in the audience replied "yes you do."
"We care about the children in Newton County," she continued, and many parents laughed.
"I sit here because I care about education for your child and my child. In hindsight we certainly know this is a decision that should have been made prior to the start of school. Again, all I can say is that we did not make that decision lightly."
Bates attempted to explain to the parents that continuous cuts from the governor’s office required the board to make decisions that they normally may not have made.
"When you talk about leaving the house at 6 a.m., I know because I left the house this morning at 6 a.m.," she said. "And I had to juggle the transportation issue because guess what — my child goes to the theme school too and I don’t have transportation."
But as Bates attempted to explain the budget issues, members of the audience continued to talk over her, yelling questions and murmuring amongst themselves.
"We’re sorry," she said. "We just hope you understand that we are trying to make decisions that benefit 20,000 students, not just the small portion that are affected right now by this position."
"We are looking at the concerns that have been expressed, but right now the drop-off points are as they have been defined," said Whatley.
The board then voted to begin their regular meeting, officially ending the time for public participation, a decision that nearly pushed some parents over the edge. Many jumped out of their seats and stormed out of the building, some began talking to one another, expressing disbelief that they were being ignored.
"Why were the buses taken away?" screamed one parent.
"This is just rude! They are just going to ignore us," said another.
One parent said that the board should not spend money on building new schools if money was tight, but schools are built with Special Local Option Sales Tax monies and bond funding, which cannot be used on buses or salaries for bus drivers and are earmarked for things such as the building of schools.
Another parent expressed her need for morning and afternoon bus service that provides door-to-door service because she, as a bus driver, is transporting students to and from school and cannot tend to her own children because of this.
"You give people three days and no notice before you make this change," said one woman, standing up. "You said we would have a bus and now you change it. Let me leave before I end up in jail."