BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The topic of how to reduce school busing costs - possibly by spreading out opening times for the high school, middle school, and elementary schools in 2016-17 - could be raised again at Monday's Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 12 at Ridge High School.

The Somerset County Educational Services Commission (ESC), which provides busing to Bernards Township's six schools, has informed the school district that it will lose about $400,000 to $500,000 providing that transportation in the 2015-16 school district, school officials said at the most recent meeting.

"We are going to have to start planning for some changes to our bus service," Board Member Elaine Kusel said at the last meeting. However, she added, "We don't really have any details at this point."

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School schedule changes being considered for next year

One of the options school officials are looking at is "three-tier" busing, or changing the school schedules for Ridge High School, the William Annin School and, likely, the four elementary schools. The revised schedule would be designed so that the same buses have enough time to pick up and drop off students between school start and stop times.

With the current start times for the middle school and Ridge, about ten minutes apart, two different sets of buses must drop off and pick up students to the two schools.

"A schedule change is the likely the best way to achieve the greatest savings," Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said in an email last week. The board first publicly discussed the need to examine ways to cut busing costs at the last board meeting of the summer, in late August.

A change in school schedules - with school opening and closing times of about an hour apart - would mean that the Educational Services Commission could probably send about 32 fewer buses to serve Bernards Township schools, Markarian said at the Sept. 28 meeting.

The ESC currently sends about 60 buses each day to transport Bernards Township schools, he added.

"I anticipate this will be a regular topic at BOE meetings this year," he added in the email.

The agenda is posted online for Monday's meeting, to be held in the Performing Arts Center at Ridge High School, 268 S. Finley Ave., in Basking Ridge.

School officials acknowledged at both meetings that changing school schedules would have a major impact on the community, and parents' own schedules.

"Obviously, the implications are significant for the town," Markarian said. A change in school schedules could affect how parents juggle their days to get to jobs, he noted.

Working hours for the school staff would also be changed, the superintendent said. The work hours for some bus drivers would be extended since some of those now leave the township after the first run to the high school, he said. "Those costs must be evaluated," he said.

No busing or schedule changes this school year

"We are not looking to change anything this year," the superintendent stressed.

At the summer meeting, the superintendent suggested another way of saving money would be to move the buses serving Bernards Township schools into town. The buses are now parked in the Bridgewater Township and Bound Brook area, which means that fuel is being used, and bus drivers are being paid to drive north to the township even before school buses begin their routes in Bernards Township, he later said.

Another option mentioned in August included having the school district buy its own fleet of school buses. Markarian said the district currently owns only some smaller vehicles used for student transportation.

"There are a lot of question marks out there," he said. "We have been diligently working with the ESC." 

Schools Business Administrator Rod McLaughlin said that for the current school year the cost of district transportation for students in attendance at all six schools, including in-district special education routes, totals: $3,819,961.