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State to track student bus times

 For the first time in six years, state education leaders have directed county school boards to report how much time children spend on school buses.  The state Department of Education wants to determine how many students ride buses over state guidelines ? no more than 30 minutes one-way for elementary school children, 45 minutes for middle school students and an hour for high school students.  State officials also plan to examine bus routes in rural counties to see whether some marathon bus rides could be shortened.  ?We don?t want any children on the bus any longer than they have to be,? said state Transportation Director Wayne Clutter, who sent a memo about the bus time reporting requirement to the state?s 55 transportation directors last week.  State schools Superintendent David Stewart said the department plans to scrutinize school closing documents to ensure that future consolidations don?t force long bus rides on large numbers of children. 
 Stewart said he would permit rides longer than the recommended limits only if school leaders showed ?good cause.? He declined to define those exemptions.  ?The state board intends for counties to adhere to the guidelines,? Stewart said Friday. ?They?re out there to be followed.? 
 Stewart plans to present his findings on student travel times to the state Board of Education later this year.  The Department of Education?s directive follows a special report published in the Aug. 25 Sunday Gazette-Mail.  The newspaper found that school administrators across the state repeatedly ignored transportation laws and guidelines, forcing thousands of West Virginia children to spend two hours or more a day on school buses.   More than half of all bus routes in rural West Virginia exceed state guidelines, according to the Gazette-Mail?s analysis of 1,500 bus runs.  The number of children who ride buses more than two hours each day doubled during the 1990s, even though 25,000 fewer students ride buses.  West Virginia church leaders plan to push state legislators to establish bus time limits. The West Virginia Council of Churches, made up of clergy from 14 denominations, plans to discuss the issue at an Oct. 25 meeting.  ?The long bus rides are impairing children in terms of their personal health, their family life and their educational development,? said Jeff Allen, a United Methodist pastor who works for the church?s Community Development Outreach Ministries in Charleston.  ?It has such a horrible, negative impact on kids. You can?t keep making the rides longer and longer.?  In recent years, legislators have balked at setting maximum bus times into law.
  In 1998, they passed a law that mandated a study of 10 school transportation issues, including ?amount of time students spend on buses.?  But the bus time stipulation was left out when the Department of Education requested bids from consultants for the study. The other nine items were listed.  ?What they eliminated was what had the biggest impact on the people they?re supposed to serve,? said Linda Martin, who heads Challenge West Virginia, a small-schools advocacy group. ?It is insulting they would play such games with the lives of children.?  State school board member Barbara Fish said school consolidations have prompted longer bus rides.  But she said low-performing schools with dwindling enrollments shouldn?t be kept open solely because closing them would result in longer rides for students.  ?We don?t want to ignore there are bus time discrepancies out there,? Fish said. ?But the solution is not keeping open a school that cannot offer the students what they need to succeed.?  Stewart noted that students in rural counties don?t always attend schools closest to home.  Students may live closer to a school in a neighboring county, for instance.  ?The first question is: Are they transporting children to the nearest school?? Stewart said. ?And if not, the second question is: How do we make that happen??  Most school systems refuse to bus children across county lines because it would prompt a loss of state funding. School systems receive state money based on the number of students they serve.  Stewart has recommended an overhaul of the state school funding formula.  Last year, he recommended that the Legislature allocate $3.6 million a year more for service workers because rural counties must hire large numbers of bus drivers, forcing them to cut classroom aides, cooks and custodians.  Legislators rejected the request.  Stewart said he eventually wants to establish a computerized transportation reporting system to track bus routes and times statewide.  To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5100.  
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