Bus purchase creates debate

Board OKs buying buses despite discord

By Ben Robinson
Staff Reporter

COUNTY — After considerable debate and disagreement, the Pickens County School Board voted 4-2 Monday night to purchase two new activity buses for around $250,000.

8-27 Page 1A.inddBoard chairman Alex Saitta objected because the proposed money for the buses would come from the district’s general fund.

“That’s education dollars,” he said.

Board member Judy Edwards said the buses are needed.

“The activity buses don’t just go to sports,” Edwards said. “These buses are important to our children’s safety.”

Edwards pointed out that the buses are often used for field trips and educational experiences.

“Activity buses don’t just go to sports. We take children to aquariums (and) we take children to the museums,” Edwards said. “There are educational activities. It’s not just to go play a sport. These activities are very, very important in our children’s education. And just sitting in a classroom is not the only way to educate children.”

Saitta suggested that the board search the budget and find items not as important as the activity buses and cut them to be able to afford the buses.

“I can’t vote to spend $250,000 tonight,” board member Jimmy Gillespie said. “I don’t know enough to vote for it.”

Edwards said the plan would be to purchase two buses at this time, then look into finding other solutions in the future.

“Ultimately the goal is safe, reliable transportation for students,” board vice chairman Jim Shelton said. “What I’m looking at is going ahead and modernizing the fleet, then having about a year’s time to look at outsourcing the service.”

Saitta continued to disagree.

“That money could be spent on educating children instead of activity buses,” Saitta said. “I’m sorry, activity buses just fall short.

“I haven’t said a lot about this because the board and the administration was doing a real good job, putting the money toward education.”

Saitta said the district’s real focus has recently been on education.

“What I’m concerned by is we’re losing that focus,” Saitta said.

Saitta said he’s concerned, because test scores for the district actually fell this year.

Another concern is that the district now competes with charter schools. Test scores have improved for charter schools but have fallen back for public schools, Saitta said.

“It makes it harder to attract top students when their results are doing this and our results are doing that,” Saitta said. “I think it was a pretty loud bell ringing when some of our old teachers are sending their kid to charter schools. They’ve got a line out their door of our students trying to get in.”

Saitta said the charter schools do not have any activity buses.

“Their focus is on instruction,” Saitta said.

Shelton pointed out that spending on maintenance was a wise investment.

“If you don’t spend that money now, you’re going to have the same problems all over again,” Shelton said. “I’m on the record as saying that one of the reasons we had such a plan was all of the years of neglect.”

Shelton asked superintendent Danny Merck about the number one reason preventing dropouts.

“Well, there’s a lot of reasons,” Merck said. “But from 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock, students need to stay active. That can be athletics, it can be band, it could be chorus — it’s one of the best drop-out preventions in America: activities.”

The vote was 4-2 in favor of purchasing the buses, with Saitta and Gillespie voting no.