Florida Politics
By Wes Wolfe
June 13, 2022
‘We’re talking about contingency plans for next year if we don’t get money or things don’t happen.’

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.

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Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes
17 days ago

You get what you pay for. County citizens’ insistence on low property taxes, low developer fees, low impact fees, etc., eventually get to the situation where growth can’t pay for infrastructure, schools, police and fire safety, etc. That’s what they mean when they call development a Ponzi scheme: new growth brings in infusions of funds temporarily, but it takes constant new growth to try to keep up to meet the needs of the community, but it can’t keep up, and eventually the system crashes, as we see all over the county now. The only winners are the developers who walk away with millions of dollars of profit and boom-dependent contractors. And the comment that we can’t stop growth? Sure we can, if there’s the will. (By the way, any talk of limiting growth and conserving land MUST include measures to keep housing affordable.)

Lou goldman
Lou goldman
17 days ago

This may be a dirty word but has there been any consideration to privitize the school bus service similar to the service in Duval county? This could be an interesting alternative.

Andrea Patten
Andrea Patten
4 days ago

How about an independent audit of the Transportation Department’s business and staffing policies and procedures. Seems to make sense to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity before denying transportation to any of the county’s students.

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