By Dianne Weaver

When West Virginia closed hundreds of its schools, state education officials promised to save millions of dollars and provide new advanced classes, without making bus rides much longer for students.

Linda Martin of Challenge WV told a legislative hearing in Charleston "These are broken promises."

Bus times are longer than ever, few advanced courses are offered to rural students, and those savings never happened.

Martin says, during recent legislative hearings, state education officials have refused to get on the same page as Challenge WV's position regarding long bus rides.

"They keep saying it is going to cost a fortune, $40 million, to pass a busing bill, when Challenge's bill costs nothing," she said.

"The busing bill that has failed to pass in the legislature is not retro-active. It prevents future long bus rides for thousands of elementary and pre-school students."

"Opposing Challenge's bus-ride bills these past years allows the state to continue their wholesale consolidation of community schools, now affecting the youngest of students," she said.

State education officials claim the number of children on long bus rides has decreased.

"It's a smoke-screen statement," said Martin, who reminded officials they don't follow their own guidelines.

Under state regulations, elementary school children are supposed to ride no more than 30 minutes to and from school, while middle school students are allowed a 45-minute bus ride and high school students can ride for up to an hour.

About 70 percent of those riding for longer than called for are elementary and pre-school children.

"We want a transportation bill to say don't do this to our youngest children," Martin told the interim committee.

"One hundred twenty-one schools are on the chopping block," she warned lawmakers, the number of elementary schools set to close in the state in the next few years.

Martin said West Virginia already spends more on transportation per pupil than any other state.

"We're asking you to save future children from such abuse," she said. "It will become a bigger problem for the youngest when the state adopts further early education.

Education officials say 21,000 WV students are on bus rides over the state's own rules, but Martin says the numbers are fudged. She says 36,000 students were over guidelines several years ago before 50 more schools were consolidated.

Challenge WV fellow Misty Pritt of Gilmer County told legislators "I don't know a lot of people seated around this table, but I know a lot of times if it doesn't affect them directly, it's hard to see the picture."

"To keep children in a community school where they can thrive and learn, I don't think there's any waste in that," Pritt said, who is concerned about long bus rides if her community school in Normantown is consolidated.

Martin said "It's late, but there must be accountability for placing three and four-year-old children on bus rides, sometimes exceeding one and one-half hours each way."

"Surely, we can stop this madness," concluded Martin.