Parents may get a break from driving their children to school next year.

Athens school board members voted 6-1 Thursday to direct Superintendent Orman Bridges Jr. to draft a plan to offer bus routes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

If approved, it would take effect in the 2007-2008 school year.

“We sent out about 500 surveys and got a very positive response from parents,” Board Chairman Richard Brown said during the school board’s regular meeting Thursday.

The project would cost the district $175,000 to $225,000 up front to pay for 14 buses, hire a transportation director, bus drivers, mechanics and cover other costs such as maintenance. That money would have to come from the 2006-2007 budget reserve.

It would cost $800,000 to operate the program, but the legislature would set aside that money in the 2007-2008 transportation budget.

In the past, the school system has not pursued a bus routes because they would have to come up with $1 million the first year, which the state legislature would not reimburse until the following year, said Barry Hamilton, finance director.

Board member Russell Johnson voted against proceeding with the project.

“The city of Athens needs buses, but I’m concerned that we are making a big commitment with a lot of unknowns. I think we should spend this year studying it, and implement it the following year.”

Hamilton said the state board of education and the state legislature may not offer the same deal in coming years.

Board member Larry Keenum agreed, saying that if the schools leased buses and the plan did not proceed, they could always lease the buses to someone else.

“Sometimes you have to get off the pot,” he added.

“I think it would really benefit the parents and, in turn, the students,” said board member Sabrina Holt in voting for the project.

“It’s a service that is needed, ” said board member Mae Mason.

Currently, city schools have provided bus routes for special education students and shuttle bus service among schools so that parents could drop off their children at one school.

City growth coupled with the change in the way the legislature would reimburse the schools prompted school officials and board members to consider starting bus routes.

“Buses would eliminate some of the traffic we have at the schools,” Brown said.

Traffic congestion is a particular problem in the afternoon, because all the parents are waiting for children who leave at the same time. Hamilton said buses would be safer than all of the private vehicles.

Johnson questioned whether the schools would be able to find enough qualified bus drivers. Drivers must have a commercial driver’s license or CDL. They earn between $12, 000 and $14,000 a year working about 20 hours a week, but they also get full health benefits, Hamilton said. Brown and Keenum said they did not believe finding bus drivers would be a problem.

Bridges said he has asked Mayor Dan Williams if the school might use the old sanitation facility by the armory for the maintenance shop, which would cut costs. He expects to talk to the mayor more about that in the coming days.

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