WELCH - The state Department of Education plans to require county transportation directors to report the time students spend on buses every year, state Superintendent David Stewart said Wednesday. "We'll develop a method to collect travel times each year in a standardized schedule," Stewart said during a state Board of Education meeting in McDowell County. "We'll put it in a standardized format." The computerized system will enable state officials to determine how many students ride longer than state guidelines - 30 minutes or less one-way for elementary children, 45 minutes for middle school students and an hour for high school students. "You'll be able to see all the schools that operate outside guidelines," Stewart said. Stewart said state department administrators also will examine the bus time guidelines in the coming months to see whether they should be changed.
State school officials have acknowledged that a spate of school closings during the past decade contributed to longer rides for children. West Virginia school buses also must traverse some of the toughest terrain in the nation. 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.
More than half of all bus routes in rural West Virginia exceed state guidelines, according to an Aug. 25 report in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
Several state education officials have criticized the report, saying it may hamper their push to consolidate schools in West Virginia. "We're not doing a good job of getting the word out about the positives of consolidation," said Sandra Chapman, a state Board of Education member. "We need to address that in public." Last week, Stewart vowed to scrutinize school closing documents to ensure that future consolidations don't force long bus rides on large numbers of children. In past years, some counties submitted incomplete school closing reports, failing to state the number of students who would ride buses over state guidelines. The state Board of Education approved the closings. The Department of Education plans to survey county transportation directors in October to find out how many children statewide exceed guidelines. Stewart plans to compile the data by the end of the year. "We need to get a handle on this," said state board member Barbara Fish. "We need to know." The state last examined student travel times in 1996. To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-5194.