Rome City Schools may be left with a multi-million dollar transportation bill within the next year as school and city officials work to come into compliance with a Georgia Department of Transportation audit that stated the two government bodies could no longer share buses.
Superintendent Lou Byars told the board in this week’s meeting where talks with state and local officials currently stand.
“It’s not good but we have plans,” he said.
The City of Rome is currently putting figures together to see how much it will cost to end the current agreement that allowed the city school students to ride Rome Transit Department buses for the past 35 years. Byars said details are mostly being handled by the city, however he has been working closely with City Manager Sammy Rich on the next steps.
Byars said he has requested a waiver on behalf of the school at the federal level to keep the current arrangement, however he says he is doubtful the system will be grandfathered in or be granted a waiver. Byars and Board Chair Faith Collins met with federal officials in Washington D.C. in March, but Byars said they didn’t make much progress.
The board needs to start looking at plans on how the system will handle transportation, Byars said. Multiple plans will need to be made due to the uncertainty of what exactly will be allowed by the GDOT.
For instance, it is currently unclear if Rome City Schools will be able to lease buses from RTD or if they will have to buy them outright. Byars said the city is looking into the cost of leasing buses along with if the system can buy RTD buses, paint them and put stop arms on the sides.
“There are too many ifs,” he said. “Money is going to be critical.”
Byars is also unsure if the schools would still be allowed to use the city’s maintenance facility since the city receives federal funding for their maintenance which does not cover school systems according to the GDOT audit. This would mean the system would have to build a maintenance facility and hire bus mechanics. Bartow County recently constructed a transportation complex for Bartow County Schools which came in around $6.5 million dollars.
There is also the issue of bus drivers. Byars said city bus drivers have different certifications than school bus drivers so the system may not be able to hire former RTD bus drivers or, if they do, the drivers would have to be re-certified.
The GDOT has requested the school system to come into compliance by August, but Byars said that will not be possible.
The city currently has a bid out for the 26 bus routes affected by the audit, and after the audit begins it will take 90 days to complete. After the audit is complete and more information is available, next steps will be taken. Byars also has informed the GDOT as well as the state board of education that making a transportation change of this size in the middle of the school year would be unsafe for students.
Board Member John Uldrick asked what the chance was of the state forcing these changes, creating a cataclysmic event for the school system.
“Not likely based on the information I have today,” Byars said. “But it is best to never assume.”
The Rome Building Authority was signed into law recently, allowing the board to sell bonds to finance projects like the $24 million college and career academy.
However, Byars said what the board wants to borrow money for is currently in limbo based on the uncertainty of the transportation situation.