The School Board of Alachua County’s (SBAC) workshop on Wednesday included a presentation of how the district will be changing its bus routes to be more efficient.
Starting in January, Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) will no longer provide courtesy bus rides to students within a two-mile walk of their zoned school, unless those students attend a highest-need elementary school, must walk a hazardous route to get to school, or are ESE (Exceptional Student Education) students. The state will fund the hazardous walking program to replace the courtesy rider program.
The district will also consolidate transportation to choice and magnet schools into “hub” stops, where part of the responsibility falls on the parents, who must deliver their child to one of the centralized locations within their district.
According to transportation director Dontarrius Rowls, there is no state requirement for the district to provide transportation to choice or magnet schools. Board Policy 5120.03 states that the school board will provide transportation to students as required, but that the superintendent may authorize a student with choice assignment to receive transportation if there is space available on an existing route.
Rowls said the added time and distance needed to get students to magnet and choice schools can only be filled with additional resources, which the district cannot afford to pay for. Instead, the new transportation plan recruits parents to get their children part of the way to school.
The district currently has 92 drivers, 17 of whom are substitutes, according to Rowls. Even with the substitutes, ACPS is still 19 drivers short of what it needs to run its current routes, and because there is no backup, office staff workers have CDL licenses and fill in when a driver calls out sick or goes on vacation.
Because the district does not yet have feedback on which courtesy riders qualify for the state’s definition of hazardous walking conditions, Rowls said he does not yet know if the changes will fully close the gap left by missing drivers.
“What I can say is that it will reduce our current impacts,” Rowls said in an interview.
Rowls took the position at ACPS at the end of July and immediately set to work on the recurring problem of bus driver shortages.
The board currently pays about 67% of the district’s transportation costs, according to Rowls. The rest is funded by the state. He said the norm in Florida is for the state and school district to pay approximately equal parts, but ACPS is overspending.
Rowls said the inefficient current system has buses doubling and tripling back to collect students, sometimes carrying far below their capacity.
Sixteen buses in the district service about 1,100 courtesy riders, and another 26 support the 1,600 magnet and choice program students. Each student costs about $1,600 to transport. On buses that do not carry their full occupancy that number is inflated, sometimes up to $4,000 to $5,000.
A new three-tiered system under consideration would allow buses to transport up to 155 and reduce costs. Rowls noted that the system would take into account a new law that takes effect July 2026, requiring middle schools to start at or after 8 a.m., and high schools at or after 8:30 a.m. Currently, only three schools in the district do not already meet the requirement: Mebane Middle School, Hawthorne Middle/High School and High Springs Community School.
Superintendent Shane Andrew clarified that pick-up times may change, but school start times will remain the same for the immediate future.
The school board also discussed the Alachua County Public Schools legislative platform for the 2024 session of the Florida Legislature.
Each year, the board develops a platform to tell local and state delegations what action it supports from the legislature. The platform is usually aligned with the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA).
Though FSBA has not yet developed its own legislative platform for the year, it has been asking for suggestions from members and will vote on its platform on Oct. 6, according to SBAC Chair Tina Certain.
The Florida School Boards Insurance Trust (FSBIT) sent in three recommendations, which Certain said should be included in the board’s platform. The suggestions include funding for district losses caused by a hurricane, maintaining current sovereign immunity limits and redefining “commercial motor vehicles” to exclude school buses for personal injury protection purposes.
Certain also asked to include the same goals for funding mental health, safety, Career Technical Education adjunct teachers and the expansion of secondary career and technical programs. She noted that she wants the legislature to continue supporting teacher salary increase allocation, increased base student allocations, increased transportation funding and increased transparency and regulation for private and charter schools.
In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a school choice law that expanded school vouchers to all families, eliminating financial eligibility requirements and removing the enrollment cap on how many can participate in the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options.
Andrew said he wanted to “level the playing field” on keeping private schools, charter schools and home schooling families within the bounds of what the scholarship money can and should be used for.
“Let’s hold everyone accountable since they’re public dollars,” Andrew said.
Andrew also asked to put on the legislative platform a request for less prolific rulemaking and more interpretation of existing rules.