City Bus file photo

East Central Elementary students get on Rome Transit Department buses in this file photo from 2014.

Rome city and Rome City Schools netted an extension of their deadline to switch students from the public transit system to buses owned and operated by the school system.

Officials were in a time crunch to change the 35-year-old arrangement before classes start this fall. The Georgia Department of Transportation recently notified City Manager Sammy Rich they’ll have until Jan. 1.

“The Department recognizes that complying with the implementation date will still be challenging ... Please begin educating parents and children on the new procedures as soon as possible,” the letter from GDOT Transit Program Manager Leigh Ann Trainer reads.

Rome City Schools has ordered 35 buses that are scheduled to be delivered by Nov. 1.

Drivers — who need a special license — still have to be hired and trained.

Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson expressed disappointment Thursday that the extension would go public before he had a chance to notify transit employees — some of whom are off for the summer break. An internal memo is slated to go out today.

City officials have been keeping drivers updated on developments and he said that support is continuing.

“We’re already working on how we can transfer our drivers who are interested in working for the school system,” Eidson said. “That’s underway. We’re going to make sure our drivers are trained and prepared for this.”

A Federal Transit Administration audit last year noted that transporting students on the public transportation system it funds is a violation of federal regulations.

The original order was to end the contract immediately, but Rich, Eidson and school officials launched a campaign on several fronts that resulted in an Aug. 1 deadline for the transition. They’ve been working with GDOT to get a 12-month extension, Eidson said, but appreciate even the bump to Jan. 1.

With breathing space for the schools secured, however, the city still has to determine what’s going to happen with its public transportation system.

“Support (from the FTA) was tied to general ridership,” Eidson explained. “With all those tripper riders gone, we don’t know what that’s going to do in terms of funding for it.”

But officials believe there’s a need to keep both the mainline bus service and the heavily used paratransit service.

Eidson said they are finalizing a request for proposals from consultants who can evaluate those services and come up with a path for future growth. The expenses associated with the tripper service will be gone, he noted, but how to maintain federal funding is a complicated issue.

“It all comes down to dollars and cents, but this affects our entire community,” Eidson said.