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Warren County schools prepare for new year

Aaron Mitchell, the Warren County Public Schools director of transportation, stands in front of one of the district's newer buses. Schools start for Warren County students and educators on Monday. Max Lee/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Shortly after school starts in Warren County on Monday, the district is slated to receive four new buses.

But the new buses won’t be traveling the routes that students take to school in the morning, Aaron Mitchell, director of transportation for the district, said. That’s because the district reserves new buses largely for night and out-of-county travel.

“We put our newest and most dependable stuff out there at night, so we have less concerns about breakdowns or issues mechanically putting our newest stuff out there,” Mitchell said. “I’d personally rather my kid out there on a 2018 brand new school bus than one of our 1998s if I was traveling to Richmond or Williamsburg.”

Mitchell said that the transportation staff is ready for a new school year.

Meanwhile, the district has filled all of its staff positions, according to superintendent Greg Drescher. Drescher stated in an email that the district hired 72 staff members this summer, 66 of whom are teachers.

He anticipates that the first day, in particular, will be slower than usual.

“We’re always a little slower for the first day or so with the elementary kids, particularly because everyone’s wanting to get a picture of the first day of school and things that slow you down,” Mitchell said.

Last year, the district came under some scrutiny from parents during the beginning of the year over how long buses were taking to arrive.  It was the first year in which  the district employed a tiered-start system, where the elementary schools start earlier than the high schools and middle schools.

“It was new for us — which again, new for drivers, new for schools, new for parents — and so there was a little bit of a transition curve there,” Mitchell said. “But those times all improved each day.”

Mitchell said that the district adjusted to the new start times and that transitioning to the start of the year this year “should be pretty well seamless.”

“I think we’ve been as proactive as we can to make sure we’ve got all of our i’s dotted,” Mitchell said. “Something’s still going to go wrong, but I think where you measure success is how you handle those issues.”

Mitchell said that the switch to tiered times last year reduced the number of buses the district needed to use and allowed the district to offer transportation for students in the Brighter Futures and Diversified Minds programs.

“We’re actually running less buses than we were prior to the tiered times,” Mitchell said. “But we’ve added transportation and other services that we didn’t prior to that because when we went to the tiered times, it freed up resources.”

The new school buses for Warren County will not have seat belts, but they will be “seat belt-ready,” Mitchell said. Such buses can have seat belts installed more easily if required by law without having to absorb as much of the cost to do so.

Adding seat belts to “seat belt-ready” buses would cost the district about $2,500, compared to between $6,000 and $10,000 per bus for one that is not “seat belt-ready,” Mitchell said. Purchasing a bus that is “seat belt-ready” cost the district around $1,000 more than  one that is not so equipped.

Mitchell said that he thinks it is inevitable that Virginia will eventually require all school buses to have seat belts. But he hasn’t made the move toward adding seat belts to buses, in part because much of what that legislation would entail, like what types of seat belts it would permit, is unclear.

“It didn’t make sense to invest that money in it and then we buy the wrong thing,” Mitchell said.

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