NEW CUMBERLAND - Hancock County parents upset over crowded school buses and other transportation glitches took the school board to task Monday night for recent changes to the bus routes.
In a sometimes testy, tense meeting, parents said the new school year, which started on Wednesday, has been marred by the district's decision to move the Weirton buses to the New Cumberland garage and to combine the high school and middle school routes.
The board gave parents two and a half hours to air their grievances, bringing in Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher and a deputy for security.
Carolyn Thomas of Weirton said she worries her 11-year-old son, a sixth-grader at Weir Middle School, will be bullied and teased by high school students at the bus stop and on the bus. She said it's already happened.
"I'm begging you for the safety of my child and as a mother: Keep my son's virtue safe because that's what I've been doing for 11 years," Thomas said. "I rely on Hancock County Schools to help me."
Thomas' husband, Joseph, raised similar concerns with the board in July, saying the drive time from New Cumberland to Weirton is too long and could pose a threat to student safety in the event of an emergency.
In doing so, Thomas was reiterating concerns first raised by representatives of the Hancock County Educational Support Professional Association in January and again in May, when Superintendent Suzan Smith announced her decision to move the 14 Weirton buses.
With the elimination of the bus garage at the old Jimmy Carey Stadium, Smith said it made sense to operate all the routes out of the New Cumberland garage, which sits across the street from the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center on state Route 2. It is nine miles from the New Cumberland garage to Weirton.
At the same time, the district decided to consolidate middle school and high school routes for the 2014-15 school year, resulting in an earlier start time for Oak Glen Middle School and Weir Middle School students.
Smith described both decisions as cost-saving measures, noting that Hancock County elementary school students and high school students have been riding together on some routes "for quite some time."
Hancock County's drop in enrollment in the past two years was another factor in the consolidation decision, district officials said.
"What Hancock County is used to is empty seats," board President Jerry Durante said on Monday.
But Simion and Gabriela Fighiroae of Chester said the earlier start time is hard on children. They cited a study released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics that said "insufficient sleep in adolescents (is) an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation's middle and high school students."
Parents also complained Monday about overcrowding on buses as a result of the route consolidation.
Desiree Brooks of Chester, who has four children in Hancock County Schools, said bus No. 27 had 88 children on it the first day of school - and 92 on the way home.
Parents said there were reports of children sitting or standing in the aisles or sitting on other students' laps.
That was something Durante said the district will not tolerate.
"We're not going to condone children sitting on someone's lap or in the aisle," he said.
Transportation coordinator Matt Shepherd said the overcrowding issues are being addressed, and some have already been fixed. He said the goal is to have an average of 52 children on each of the consolidated bus routes.
"We are very close to running our buses where we want them to be," he said. "It's only been four days, and we've almost got it taken care of."
The board took another step to address overcrowding on Monday by adding a bus run and hiring a new driver at 5.75 hours a day. A second route also may be added, Durante said. The district's 41 drivers - 42 with the new hire - usually have contracts for either 5.75 hours or seven hours.
Durante said that while the new bus route policies are reversible, they deserve to be given a chance to work.
"We'll do anything we have to do to get the buses settled down. We just need time," he said.
"We're all in this together, and we need to resolve this together," board member Patsy Brancazio said. "This has not been taken lightly. Just give us a chance - that's all we ask."
Tim Taylor of Weirton, who has two children at Weir Middle School and Weir High School, said he was not entirely happy with the board's response Monday night.
"It's the mixing of the students that most of us don't approve of. I don't think they're going to budge on that," Taylor said, noting that he is willing to give the board a month to fix things.
"I don't think they'll change anything," Fighiroae said. "They made up their minds a long time ago."