By Dianne Weaver

The West Virginia legislature has passed a bill that slows long bus rides for the state's youngest students.

Challenge WV coordinator Thomas Ramey said "We applaud legislators for passing the bill which considers the needs of students as young as four-years-old."

The bill applies to changes in bus routes, essentially linked to future consolidation of schools.

"The bill is a good first step," Ramey said, noting that Challenge WV has been trying to slow the consolidation bandwagon for several years.

"Research says community-based education works best," he said.

The bill prohibits creation of new bus routes for students in Grades Pre-K through 5 which exceed the current elementary limit by more than 15 minutes unless a county board would adopt a motion to request "written permission" of the state Board of Education.

Thousands of WV school children already exceed the state's own guidelines for being on a school bus, with thousands more at risk of rides drastically exceeding the guidelines, some one-and-one half hours or more each way, said Ramey.

The West Virginia Board of Education is required to provide technical assistance to county boards to create bus routes consistent with recommended time durations.

"Almost every time we've pushed a bill to limit long bus rides, state education officials have told legislators the bill would cost millions of dollars," said Ramey, "In fact, it costs nothing, and is not retroactive."

The bill requires that county board's must include updated estimates of associated bus transportation costs when projects include the closure, consolidation or construction of a school.

After July 1, the School Building Authority would be prohibited from approving a county board project that includes a closure, consolidation or construction of facilities which exceed state Board of Education's guidelines more than 15 minutes unless the WVBE has given written permission.

"The day of full-scale consolidation are about over," said Delegate Stan Shaver, "And it couldn't come too soon," indicating that thousands of WV children will remain on long, expensive bus rides.

Ramey said WV has been on the consolidation bandwagon for years, when most of America has returned to community-based schools.

"The bill basically requires local school systems to consider the length of bus runs when they consider consolidation in the future," said Jana Freeman, a Challenge WV fellow from Preston.

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