Homer-area schools to plan to reduce 10 bus routes to five next school year

Among the budget-driven changes coming to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is a new busing system that will change start times for 10 southern Kenai Peninsula schools.

After the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development cut inflation funding from its pupil transportation grant allocations, the school district created a plan to have each southern peninsula bus carry two loads of students — first dropping off the kids picked up on one route then going out on another route to pick up for a different school.

The two-tier busing system — which central peninsula schools have already used for several years — would require that a pair of schools sharing one set of buses start an hour apart, giving time for drivers to make both routes. To gather suggestions from parents about how the district schools should shift their schedules, local principals and school district officials recently hosted public meetings at Ninilchik School, Chapman School and Homer High School.

The Sept. 20 meeting in Ninilchik brought parents of Ninilchik students and those from Anchor Point’s Chapman School. Presently the two schools have five buses between them. Under the two-tier proposal, they would share three.

Homer High School — which some Anchor Point high school students attend as well — will be consolidating its bus routes with surrounding schools such as Paul Banks Elementary, Fireweed Academy, Homer Flex School and McNeil Canyon Elementary. Materials distributed at the Ninilchik meeting state the Homer-area schools collectively plan to reduce their 10 bus routes to five, which together with the Ninilchik-Chapman consolidation is expected to save $664,223.

The general plan of two-tier busing wasn’t controversial at the Ninilchik meeting, but participants pointed out that many of its particulars can have broad effects. For example, Chapman principal Conrad Woodhead recommended that his school start and end at the same time as or earlier than Homer Elementary to accommodate a shared schedule of extracurriculars.

“One of the things in Anchor Point is, besides being in the middle geographically, a lot of folks feel like we’re tied to what Homer wants to do and Ninilchik wants to do,” Woodhead said. “A lot of our kids, since we’re fairly resource-poor, participate in sporting or other activities down the hill (in Homer). A lot of those activities start typically at the elementary end times down there… If we had a later end time than they did, then our kids would miss an opportunity.”

In addition to the public meetings, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilitator Doug Hayman is searching for such particular effects via an online comment form found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/SouthernPeninsulaSchoolTimes. Hayman said the principals of the affected schools would make a collective decision after the meetings finish.

“The next step for us is, after we have each community’s questions, comments and concerns, we’re going to put all the principals in a room and analyze and synthesize what each community would like to see and come up with start times that will address the unique needs and wants of each community,” Hayman said. “From the district perspective, we don’t care what time Paul Banks Elementary or Ninilchik School start, as long as Ninilchik and Chapman start an hour apart, and half the schools at Homer have to start at different times so we can make the routes work.”

According to a timeline distributed at the meeting, school district administrations plan to have a draft bus schedule by January 2017 and a final schedule in place before school starts that year in August 2017.

The company providing bus service next year will also change. The Missouri-based busing company Apple Bus will begin a 10-year contract to take over the school district’s transportation — currently contracted to the Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student busing company — at the end of June 2017.

Ben Boettger can be reached at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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