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Rough road ahead: School cites safety for bus service changes, but parents worry about new issues

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Impassable

IMPASSABLE – Decatur ISD Transportation Director Jared Laaser examines the poor road conditions on Lone Trail, one of the roads in the Hills of Oliver Creek subdivision. Buses stopped driving the roads this week. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Alexandra Bohannan called her son one afternoon as he was riding the bus home from school.

As she was talking to him, she spotted his bus down the road, just as it hit one of the many potholes in the road.

“He said, ‘Ow, I hit my head!'” Bohannan said. “It had flung him up, and he hit his head on the window.”

As it turned out, this was a common occurrence with many of the students in the Hills of Oliver Creek subdivision south of County Road 4421 just north of New Fairview.

Her 7-year-old son had even come up with a way to try to soften the blow.

“When he would complain to me, he said he would put his backpack right here,” Bohannan said, indicating her son would place his backpack between his head and the window, “and lean on it because otherwise he would smack his head. (The bus driver) would try to rotate who would sit by the window so that no one kid would always hit their head.”

As of Monday, that problem had been remedied by the school district, but several parents are not happy with the solution.

The bus no longer enters the neighborhood.

The Bus Stops Here

THE BUS STOPS HERE – Students exited the bus Monday afternoon at the entrance to the Hills of Oliver Creek subdivision off County Road 4421. Many parents parked along Coyote Trail to pick up their children. Messenger photo by David Talley

SAFETY CONCERNS

The Hills of Oliver Creek subdivision is located on a hilly area of land near Oliver Creek. A network of several private roads criss-cross the area about the size of the cities of Chico or Alvord.

Approximately 80 to 90 students in the neighborhood ride the bus to and from school, which is located in Decatur about 11 miles away. The majority of those students are elementary age.

On Jan. 27, the Decatur school district sent a letter home to parents of students in the neighborhood stating the roads were not only causing damage to the buses, but it had become “unsafe for the buses to drive on.” The letter stated that beginning Feb. 6, the buses would load and unload on County Road 4421 at Coyote Trail at the entrance to the neighborhood.

On Monday, the new route took effect. Parents parked their cars along both sides of Coyote Trail as they waited to drop off and then pick up their children.

As they waited for the bus, several parents expressed concerns about the safety of children who were having to walk the longer distance to the bus stop – some more than a mile – as well as the children having to navigate around the traffic bottleneck at the intersection, especially in the morning hours when it’s still dark.

Rosalynna Oliver said she doesn’t get home from work most days until around 7 p.m. and can’t be there to pick up her young daughter after school. She said she took her concerns to school district officials last week after receiving the letter, and officials told her about the damage to the buses.

“I said, ‘You know what? Buses can be replaced. You cannot replace a child,'” Oliver said.

She said she plans to attend the school board meeting on Feb. 27 to voice her concerns.

ROAD RESPONSIBILITY

Bohannan acknowledged the roads in the area are bad, but she wasn’t sure who was responsible for the upkeep. She wondered if the county could fix the roads.

She said homeowners in the neighborhood have tried patching the holes the best they can over the years, but they can’t afford the cost of major repairs.

“I would even be willing to pay a tax for (the county) to fix it,” she said. ” … As a parent and a homeowner, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to work with them, but it just feels like we don’t have anyone willing to work with us.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Danny White confirmed the roads within the Hills of Oliver Creek were never declared county roads and are in fact, private roads, which means they must be maintained by the property owners.

“It’s a state law,” he said. “There is an attorney general ruling that says we can’t work on private property, and a private road is private property.”

To be a county road, the developer must build the streets to specific county standards and bring them before county commissioners to be accepted into the maintenance program. A private road, which is often built to a lesser standard, is dedicated to the county for public use but not maintained by the county.

White said in his experience, most neighborhoods with private roads have a homeowners association that collects dues monthly or annually to use for road maintenance, among other things.

Everett Frazier, the developer of the subdivision, said the roads are the responsibility of the local homeowners association, but it is unclear if that homeowners association has been collecting dues.

“The roads were turned over to the homeowners association, but no one wanted to do anything,” Frazier said by phone Tuesday.

He said that he has periodically made road repairs during the past 20 years, and he said he planned to deliver gravel next week, even though it is the responsibility of homeowners to maintain the roads.

DAMAGE TO BUSES

Decatur ISD Superintendent Rod Townsend said the district has had transportation issues in the neighborhood for years and has notified homeowners in the area in the past about making improvements.

Because the roads are all private, Townsend said the school isn’t supposed to drive down them anyway. But because of the number of students in the neighborhood, DISD has provided several bus stops in the neighborhood for about 11 years.

Recent events, however, have caused the district to take a more hard-line stance.

“Maintenance issues are one thing, but when it starts tearing up new (buses) and we start having safety issues on top of that, somewhere you have to draw the line, and so that’s what we’ve done is draw a line in the sand and said you either need to make your roads passable and safe or we are going to pick up at the county road and you are just going to have to get your child to the county road,” Townsend said. “The district has the right to establish drop off and pick up points. What we did was try to accommodate those people, and they got used to it and didn’t take responsibility to maintain the roads.”

DISD Transportation Director Jared Laaser said the roads in the neighborhood have damaged the year-old buses and required costly repairs. Since the beginning of the year, the costs to repair one of the buses has topped $1,500, not including labor costs.

Perhaps the most serious damage was to a battery box which holds six batteries and is located on the underside of the bus near the driver’s seat. Laaser recalled getting a call from the bus driver one day after she heard a big “thud” and found the damage. The driver dropped off the one remaining child and drove back to town.

“By the time she got back, (the battery box) was hanging, and the cables to the batteries were holding it up,” Laaser said. “… The welded brackets were all cracked and split. That worried me because you think of the electricity which could have sparked anything. The fact that those batteries could have fallen under her wheel well, it would have been a bounce straight up in the air.”

Townsend said if the main road into the neighborhood could be improved enough to provide safe travel, the school district could resume limited service with the addition of a turnaround spot.

“If we are just going to go to a drop off and pickup point inside, we will designate a spot, and they will have to provide a place that is safe, where we have the ability to turn around without getting stuck,” he said.

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