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Busing overhaul ready to face test

Public school students who ride buses to school may not notice anything different next month when the yellow behemoths begin arriving once more at their front doors.

But for the people who oversee the daily comings and goings of the school district's 215 buses, this has been a summer of change.

For example, starting Aug. 13, middle school pupils no longer will share buses with high schoolers. Elementary school pupils will continue to have their own bus routes.

Some routes and stops have been changed, as has the way some bus drivers' pay is determined.

And drivers now will have a more formal way to enforce discipline, including more involvement with parents.

These are among a host of changes that the School Board will discuss at a 2 p.m. workshop Tuesday. The board also will again discuss retaining corporal punishment and changing the dress code.

One of the proposed changes spells out for the first time a step-by-step process drivers will use to discipline students who misbehave. A crucial step brings parents into the disciplinary process.

"A lot of the drivers, that was the technique they would use," transportation supervisor Alice Rowland said. "In fact, we've always been able to do these things, but we just didn't have a formal procedure to do them."

The School Board approved the procedures last spring as a pilot program for two middle schools and two elementary schools.

"That gave us enough positive feedback that we wanted to make it go countywide," Rowland said. Not only does the new process make it clear to drivers what they do when a problem erupts, but "it makes it better at the school too."

The change receiving the most attention from the drivers pertains to how their routes are assigned.

While drivers will be receiving the same pay under the formula used in the past, some will be driving farther and working longer each day to make the same pay, said Bill Humbaugh, who oversees district management operations.

For those who drive 49 miles or less each day, pay is based on a percentage of a base salary. That arrangement has meant that drivers on a route that has been steadily shrinking for years could have earned as much as $20 to $30 per hour, plus benefits.

Humbaugh said the district is trying to equalize routes so that someone who previously had a short route might now have two routes totaling less than 49 miles.

The changes will make the Citrus drivers' pay scale much closer to those of drivers in other parts of the state, he said.

"If you calculate your hourly rate, you won't be making as much as you did," Humbaugh said. "But we're not talking about $3-a-day . . . sweatshop pay. We're still talking about pretty decent wages."

Each year, the board must approve the bus routes, which is normally a routine matter. This year, however, many of the routes have been overhauled because middle school and high school students will be on separate buses.

That's meant a summerlong challenge of studying maps, proposing routes and driving virtually every road in Citrus County to make sure the maps were accurate.

"The main reason for the change is so that we can become more efficient and more effective," said Rowland, who did many of the route inspections herself.

Previously, middle school pupils shared some buses with high school students. Because schools are on different schedules, students would sometimes be sitting on the bus waiting for another school to dismiss its students before the trip home.

The idle time often led to student misbehavior.

"This is better for student management purposes, to have them separated out," Rowland said. "There are just a whole lot of reasons why this will make it easier."

To assist parents with any questions about routes, detailed information will be available at each school, Rowland said.

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