The pressures on the Nassau County School District can appear as unrelenting as the growth that’s driving them, while the district is in a reactive position.
“We can’t stop the growth,” School Board Chairwoman Donna Martin said at the last Board meeting. “We can only try to make it the best we can to provide an education for our students.”
Particularly affected by more people and higher costs is transportation — you have to facilitate a process that gets students to and from school safely, efficiently and timely. Unless steps are taken though, routes next school year may be limited.
“We’ve been operating this year at about 60% staffing — I’ve been running with about 60% of my staff all year,” Nassau County School District Transportation Director Brad Underhill told the Board. “It’s been pretty difficult, everybody’s kind of had to chip in. I’ve got several people who work at the school who drive a route for me in the morning and then go work, do custodial work, and come back. One of the secretaries at Facilities came over and aided every afternoon.”
The situation’s growing further out of reach as the district tries to make up for the lack of staff. Ridership, Underhill said, is back to pre-pandemic levels — around 6,000 students. In Yulee especially, the routes are now longer, with crowded buses. There will need to be another two or three routes in Yulee to handle the number of students next year, he said.
It’s not exactly a sustainable situation in the long term to pull help from other departments, so the district needs the funds to offer in order to be able to recruit and retain drivers. It’s not just teachers in this crunch, it’s many people working for the district.
“We’re talking about contingency plans for next year if we don’t get money or things don’t happen,” Underhill said.
“This year, we were one of the few districts that didn’t have to say, ‘No, we’re not taking your kids to school.’ There were a lot of districts where things took place and kids didn’t get a ride that day. We didn’t — we made it all year. I think we had one messed-up day where someone called out at the last minute. We were really late, but all our kids had a ride every day.”
If routes have to be cut, it will be a juggling act for a lot of families. The district might have to do “rolling blackouts” in which on any given day, one or more routes may not be run, on a rotating basis. A district in Georgia, Underhill said, did double runs with rotating groups of students. Students who were in the later group could still be picked up by a parent at the usual time.
Meanwhile, diesel fuel’s costing the district around double what it was two years ago. Of the 165 or so buses in the district, they have 55 new ones, 45 to be sold, and the balance to remain on hand.
The new buses are supposed to be more fuel-efficient, need less oil and allow more time between getting serviced. Underhill estimates the 2-3 miles per gallon in increased fuel economy will save $60,000-$70,000.
“Having these new buses with the better fuel economy and getting a lot of the older gas-guzzlers off the road on a daily basis, I hope, should generate around $150,000-$200,000 in savings that we net next year even with the increase,” Underhill said. “I hope it will offset the (price) increase in diesel if it doesn’t.”
Of the older, less-efficient buses, the district will keep a few for spare parts. He expects the others to bring the district $200,000-$250,000 at auction, but he also has some requests from nonprofits for donated buses, which he intends to bring before the Board for its approval.