Plans on How to Cut Busing Costs to be Revealed in November

Ridge High School, 268 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge. Credits: By Linda Sadlouskos

BERNARDS TWP., NJ - A report on how the school district plans to shave about a half-million dollars off school busing costs next year -- possibly by changing school schedules to reduce the number of buses needed to transport students in the 2016-17 school year -- is expected to be presented to the public at either the Nov. 9 or Nov. 23 Board of Education meetings.

School officials were due to meet with the Somerset County Educational Services Commission (ESC) this week to try to pin down specifics on how the savings can be achieved, taking into account the number of buses needed, as well as labor and fuel costs.

Board member Elaine Kusel reported at Monday's school board meeting that the greatest savings might be through implementing a "two-tier" schedule that would have Ridge High School and the William Annin Middle School opening about an hour apart.

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Theoretically, Ridge might open at 7:25 a.m. and WAMS at 8:25 a.m., giving the same buses time to transport students to both schools, suggested Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian. Currently, the back-to-back schedules at both schools require different buses to transport high school and middle school students.

That two-tier schedule, which would also keep the latest dismissal times for students at 3:15 p.m., would require that two of the district's four elementary schools open at about 8 a.m., with the other two opening at about 8:45 a.m. and releasing students at 3:15 p.m., the current elementary schedule, Markarian said.

That change would reduce the number of school buses that currently serve the district -- which is 60 -- to 45, school officials said. The ESC has told Bernards school officials that the commission is losing about $400,000 to $500,000 by providing busing for Bernards students this year, and asked township school officials to come up with a way to address that deficit.

The ESC asked for a proposal by the end of 2015, even though any changes would not go into effect until the following school year.

Markarian said he would prefer that the report on the preferred proposal for changes to school busing, including any changes to next year's school schedule, would be ready in time for the Nov. 9 meeting of the Board of Education.

Although a number of proposals have been discussed at the past few board meetings -- including parking school buses in the township rather than having them drive up and back to a parking area about 15 miles to the south -- no decisions have been made.

"We just don't know the facts," Kusel cautioned on Monday night.

Under a possible three-tier system, the start and end of the school days at Ridge High School, the William Annin Middle School and the district's four elementary schools would be spread far enough apart so that the same set of buses could transport students to all the different schools in the district. That would reduce the number of school buses needed to 30, school officials said.

However, stretching out school schedules would also lengthen the school day for at least some students.

Kusel added that at some point school bus drivers who are working longer days will also qualify for benefits provided by the ESC, which have been steadily increasing each year.

Markarian said previously that he expects the topic of how the school district can help reduce the ESC's school busing costs will be a regular topic at upcoming Board of Education meetings.

Schools Business Administrator Rod McLaughlin previously 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.

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