By Melanie Patterson
The North Jefferson News
A small Gardendale group was willing to walk a mile and a half in the rain this week to get their point across.
At 7:15 Monday morning, Robyn Chapin, Darlene Winston, Sherri Penton and Tim Clayton walked from Kmart down Fieldstown Road, Mt. Olive Road past Gardendale Elementary and Bragg Middle schools, up Main Street and back to Kmart.
They are working to get a waiver for Gardendale schools regarding school bus laws.
The Alabama Department of Education has a rule on the books (Section 16-13-233) that says, regarding funding, “... no allowance shall be made for transporting pupils who live less than two miles from the school they are attending ...”
However, the law also states that the department can make exceptions if so requested by a school district’s superintendent.
Sen. Scott Beason, R-17th, said he had contacted state officials who expressed to him that the two-mile rule could possibly be waived to help alleviate traffic issues in and around the schools.
Chapin is gathering signatures to try to convince Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Phil Hammonds to request the waiver for Gardendale Elementary, Bragg Middle and Gardendale High schools.
However, county officials say it is simply “not feasible.”
Dr. Yancy Morris, Jefferson County Board of Education deputy superintendent for administrative services, said that not only is this not a new issue, but it’s an issue at most schools in Jefferson County.
“It’s not a matter of not wanting to, it’s a matter of not able to,” said Morris.
Even if the school system bought new buses to pick up extra students, Morris said the state does not reimburse those costs until “two years down the road.”
With the state allotting the Jefferson County school system $4 million less than last year, Morris said there is no way to put extra buses on the road right now.
The smaller budget includes a $1.2 million cut in the county schools’ transportation budget, according to Alberto “Tico” Sanchez, assistant director for the Jefferson County Board of Education transportation department.
Simultaneously, the department’s fuel budget increased this year by $1.2 million, Sanchez said.
“I hate to say it boils down to money,” said Sanchez. “When they cut our money, the local system has to come up with the money to fund it.”
In Gardendale, the biggest problem is traffic congestion at Gardendale Elementary and neighboring Bragg Middle School. Gardendale Elementary principal Ellen Andrews declined to comment and Bragg principal Jeff Caufield was unavailable.
Information was not immediately available from the schools about how many of their students live within two miles.
On Aug. 21, Chapin hosted a petition-signing for the waiver at The Church Revived, where she gathered 45 signatures.
The petition is currently at the USA Digital Nextel store in Gardendale for those who would like to sign.
Winston said the walk that she and the others took was enlightening, as they encountered some problems that children walking to and from school face.
She said those problems include walking across U.S. Hwy. 31 with no walk signals or crossing guards, a lack of sidewalks in some places, partial sidewalks next to a deep ravine with no guardrails, walking past the jail with inmates outside smoking, and inclement weather.
Morris said there are some waivers in Jefferson County, but he did not want to go into details about them. He also said there have been no new waivers in seven or eight years.
Chapin, who has had children in Gardendale schools for the past seven years, said she would put her children on a school bus if it was available, “to keep a car out of the traffic line.”
“We hate it we can’t pick everybody up, but the state set those restrictions for a reason,” said Sanchez. He said it is simply “not feasible” to have the waiver in Gardendale.
“Our buses are full in the Gardendale area,” he said.
“If we did anything (in Gardendale), we would have to go to double-run buses,” he said. “For us to do a double run, we would have to pick up kids at 6:30.”
And that, he said, would only only anger the parents of students who live 10 or 15 miles away from school.
“Their school day would be increased by over an hour,” said Sanchez. “It’s just a no-win situation.”
By Melanie Patterson