CATOOSA — School Transportation Director Chester Knight said Catoosa buses will pick up Keetonville area students as close to their homes as possible this school year.

“We’re adding a route to accommodate the students on the north and south ends of Keetonville Road due to the road closing,” said Knight. “The route itself, round trip, is 46 miles. We actually drive 23 miles before we make the first pick-up.”

The additional miles and fuel costs are worth the safety advantages gained by the longer route, said Knight.

Knight spent much of the summer seeking solutions to the transportation problem posed by the Keetonville Road closure. At the end of the last school year, parents had to drive those extra miles, transporting students to a pick up location at the Port of Catoosa, then waiting until the bus arrived.

Superintendent Rick Kibbe promised the school would work out a better solution for this year.

“Our transportation director Chester Knight did a lot of research on (the route),” said Kibbe. “He has the situation resolved. We’re very fortunate we have a transportation director that’s taking responsibility. He’s not even on the payroll this summer, and he’s spent a lot of hours trying to work that out.”

Knight is also the assistant high school principal. He said the middle school and high school bus will leave Catoosa at 6:05 a.m.

“That should accommodate the students to be here to eat breakfast at 7:15,” said Knight. “We’ll turn right around and run the route again for our elementary students, hopefully getting them on campus by about 8:15 or 8:20.”

The school will respond to parental input once the route is in place. Time elements may be adjusted to accommodate students better once the route is up and running.

Parents are happy students will be picked up closer to home, said Knight.

“We feel like this is the best strategy right now,” said Knight. “We’ll go all the way to Keetonville Road on the north and to the soccer complex, then make our way back down Highway 20. We’re not going up driveways or anything like that, but most of the houses are on the road.”

“As we’re coming back, we’ll get on (Highway) 266 and go to the south end of Keetonville Road and go north to make a turnabout at the barricade and then make our way back to pick those students up.”

The extra mileage will add to already increasing fuel costs. Kibbe said no routes will be eliminated or changes due to the increase in the price of fuel. At least one school district in the state has said it will alter bus routes and require students living within 1 1/2 miles away to get to school on their own. Catoosa isn’t ready to make those sacrifices yet.

“We are not going to change anything at this point,” said Kibbe. “We’re going to start school like we ended school, and we’ll try to make it work. We’re projecting a 30-percent increase in the cost of operating the buses. We feel fortunate we have new buses and will not have the repairs we had last year, so hopefully that will help balance the fuel cost out.”

The Keetonville route will put a lot of extra miles on at least one school bus.

“It’s 184 miles extra per day counting both trips,” said Knight. “The route is run for middle school and secondary, then again for the elementary. We run our routes twice.”

Catoosa does not have a mini bus in its fleet, but one of the smaller buses will be used on the Keetonville route.

“We have a bus already in our fleet that we feel will work. It’s a smaller, 56-passenger bus,” said Knight.

Larger buses in the fleet carry 71 passengers.

“At first, we were going to go to two spots used for pick-ups if we have to run an ice route,” said Knight. “That meant some students would be latch-key kids. Now we’re dropping them off closer to the house and students don’t have to walk. We’ll make this work.”

Other areas impacted by rising fuel costs includes Child Nutrition. Food vendors have fuel surcharges.

The school’s Child Nutrition budget will increase 25-30 percent this year, but parents will pay the same for school meals.

“We are not going up on lunches or breakfast at this time,” said Kibbe. “We’re going to try to absorb that and see how things level off. This fuel has hit parents and school alike. The state didn’t provide additional resources and left all of the mandates on for schools to meet.”

During previous financial straits, Catoosa reduced the number of school transfers accepted due to attendance and staffing numbers. State mandated class sizes mean each transfer must be looked at individually.

“We have a principals’ meeting this week, and we’re going to try to take all of the transfers we can,” said Kibbe. “We’re looking at academic performance, behavior and attendance. Those will be the students that are first on the list that we’ll accept. Any transfers we had last year at Catoosa were automatically accepted this year.”

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