BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The Bernards Township's school district has informed parents that changes in school schedules are "a very real possibility" for the 2016-17 school year, as school officials and the township's school bus provider look at ways to reduce school busing costs.

A proposal is anticipated to be presented to the Board of Education and public at the board meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Nov. 23 at the Performing Arts Center at Ridge High School, 268 S. Finley Ave. in Basking Ridge.

The school district's bus provider, the Somerset County Educational Services Commission (ESC), earlier informed Bernards Township that the cost of providing in-district buses leaves the ESC with a deficit of about a half million dollars each year, Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said at school board meetings during the past few months, and in an email to parents about a week ago.

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"An increase of this magnitude is not something our budget can handle in the long term, so we are in the process of evaluating cost saving options," Markarian said in the email. "One way that we may be able to lower our busing expense by such a vast sum is to restructure our school opening and closing times to allow for a more efficient use of buses and bus drivers." 

School officials said at previous meetings that the ESC now assigns about 60 buses per school day to transport Bernards Township students to and from schools.

Because the school day schedules at Ridge High School and William Annin Middle School are nearly the same, a different set of buses must transport students to each school.

School officials said at the last meeting that if the high school and middle school open and close about an hour apart, the same buses would be able to transport the students to high school, and then drop off the Ridge students before picking up the WAMS students.

The same 30 buses - instead of the current 60 - could accomplish both runs, according to school officials. Some of the currently assigned buses later head out to pick up elementary school students for transportation to Bernards Township's four elementary schools.

If the four elementary schools opened later - some time after 9 a.m. - the same 30 buses would be able to transport those students as well, according to information discussed at previous school board meeings.

However, in order to avoid having elementary school students dismissed later in the day, school officials last month discussed a "three-tier" schedule in which two of the elementary would start earlier, and two would begin later. That would translate into the school district requiring about 45 buses, rather than 60, to be assigned each day to Bernards Township.

A separate set of 15 school buses could serve the four elementary schools - with two of those schools to have an earlier opening time, for example, at about 8 a.m., with two others to open at about 9 a.m, Markarian said. That would allow the buses time to transport and drop off students at two elementary schools before picking up children for the other two, he suggested at a board meetin in October.

Those buses travel to and from the ESC's parking area about 15 miles south, so any reduction in buses needed would also save on fuel costs, school officials said at previous meetings.

However, some bus drivers are currently only assigned to work part-time in Bernards Township, and if more become full-time workers, that would trigger the need to pay for benefits, school officials added during discussions.

Nothing decided at this time, but answer due by end of 2015

"Nothing is decided for certain at this time; however change is a very real possibility for the 2016- 2017 school year," Markarian said in the email to parents on Oct. 30.

But school officials said last month that the ESC wants an answer by the end of 2015 on how the Bernards Township school district plans to address the deficit.

Markarian and other school officials have said they realize that shifting school day starting and dismissal times to earlier or later hours would impact staff, students, and families, as well as  before and after school programs.

Markarian said the plan for the district's proposal to save costs and possibly change school schedules is expected to be presented to the Board of Education and the public at the Board of Education meeting on November 23. Parents who are unable to attend the meeting can afterward access both the meeting and presentation will be posted on the district website, he said in the email.

First November school board meeting set for this Monday

Meanwhile, the first November Board of Education meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on this Monday, Nov. 9, in the auditorium of the William Annin Middle School.

The board and public are scheduled to hear the annual district post-secondary report, which includes information on where Ridge students signed up to attend college.

The agenda for this Monday's meeting is posted on the Bernards Board of Education website.